Earlier this month, I revisited the case of NSA leaker Edward Snowden. At the time, I wrote, “There is a very real problem… when factual information is incomplete because a story is still evolving…”
I thought I’d take a look at some past stories that were, initially, major political and media firestorms, but facts later proved them to be less reliable than first believed.
The I.R.S. Scandal –
A story in The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 13), reported that “The Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn’t plan to file criminal charges over the Internal Revenue Service’s heightened scrutiny of conservative groups… officials said investigators didn’t find the kind of political bias or ‘enemy hunting’ that would amount to a violation of criminal law. Instead, what emerged during the probe was evidence of a mismanaged bureaucracy enforcing rules about tax-exemption applications it didn’t understand, according to the law-enforcement officials.”
The New York Times (Jan. 13), added, “I.R.S. documents show the agency gave the same scrutiny to some liberal groups, using the key words ‘Progressive’ and ‘Occupy.’ ”
Last May, FactCheck.org reported that “While there has been plenty to find fault with in the revelation that the IRS targeted some tea party groups seeking tax exempt status, some of the Republican rhetoric has been an overreach.
“Rep. Michele Bachmann falsely claimed that Americans ‘most personal, sensitive, intimate, private healthcare information is in the hands of the IRS,’ while raising the specter that the IRS will misuse that information against “political opponents of this administration.’ The IRS will not have access to personal health records.
“Sen. Rand Paul passed along baseless speculation that ‘the person running Obamacare’ was the one ‘who wrote the policy’ at the center of the IRS controversy. That’s a reference to a former IRS commissioner of the office responsible for tax-exempt organizations who now heads the IRS’ Affordable Care Act office. But a Treasury Inspector General’s report found that employees at the Cincinnati office, not any administrators in Washington, ‘developed and implemented’ the policy in question.
“Rep. Paul Ryan said that the IG investigators ‘didn’t look at e-mails, they didn’t look at intent, they didn’t look who was in the chain of information.’ That’s not true. The IG office did look at emails and conducted interviews, and the report made findings about who knew what and when.”
While FBI Director James Comey said, “It’s an investigation that we’re still working and that’s an important one for us,” it’s crucial that we avoid making judgments based on speculation, rumor, innuendo and incomplete information.
After the assault on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012, and the death of four Americans including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, initial White House reports said that the attack was due to backlash against an anti-Muslim film. Within hours of the story, Republicans moved into a hyper drive of criticism questioning whether White House officials deliberately attempted to mislead the American public about the cause of the attack.
Two days after the attack, Michigan representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, questioned the protest angle saying, “I have seen no information that shows that there was a protest going on… It was clearly designed to be an attack.”
The President didn’t help matters in statements made at a press conference. In examining the issue last May, FactCheck.orgfound that “President Obama says the May 8 House hearing on Benghazi and subsequent reporting about it produced no new information. That’s largely the case, but the president misrepresented some facts at his May 13 press conference in dismissing the House investigation as a ‘political circus.’
“Obama said Republicans acted ‘as if there’s something new to the story’ about the talking points used by an administration official to discuss Benghazi on the Sept. 16, 2012, Sunday talk shows,” FactCheck writes. “But this much is new: We learned that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney falsely claimed the White House and State Department made no substantive changes to the talking points. Extensive revisions were made after State raised objections and after a White House meeting.
“The president also said ‘congressional committees’ reviewed emails ‘several months ago’ regarding changes to the talking points, and they ‘concluded that, in fact, there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used.’ There was no such conclusion. Obama was referring to a February closed-door meeting in which senators viewed the emails as part of John Brennan’s confirmation. Some senators were satisfied and some weren’t. Sen. Marco Rubio, in fact, said a review of the emails ‘raises other questions with regard to process.’
“Obama said he used the term ‘act of terrorism’ a day after the attack. Not exactly. He said ‘acts of terror’ and ‘act of terror.’ Also that day, the president said he did not use the word ‘terrorism’ because ‘it’s too early to know exactly how this came about.’ Over the next several days, he would repeat that the attack began as a protest of an anti-Muslim video and spiraled out of control.”
Republicans pounced and maintained that, not only was the attack planned and executed by Al Qaeda, but White House officials deliberately misled the public.
Recently, however, The New York Times released a comprehensive report (Dec. 28, 2013) by David Kirkpatrick. Based on “months of investigation” and “extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context,” the investigation found “no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups” had any role in the assault.
While a recent Senate report found that the attack was preventable by both the CIA and State Department, Kirkpatrick found that although the Benghazi compound “had been under surveillance at least 12 hours before the assault started,” the attack also had “spontaneous elements.”
What these reports and many others demonstrate is: a) Washington’s new default setting revolves around one side blaming while the other side defends; and b) the media becomes a willing enabler in stoking any firestorm. As a consequence facts become the first casualty, and public cynicism displaces meaningful debate about the real issues that affect us all.