The January 6 Investigation Is Not Like The Benghazi Investigation
And other problems with the New York Times' Jan. 6 coverage
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On Saturday, the New York Times published a misleading report about the congressional committee investigating the January 6 Capitol attack. The article does not have factual inaccuracies, but it omits crucial information and erroneously frames the issue as normal partisan competition between two similar sides. In particular, it falsely equates the Jan. 6 investigation with a congressional investigation into the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Reporters Michael S. Schmidt and Luke Broadwater begin by saying the committee is “employing aggressive tactics typically used against mobsters and terrorists.” They note that former president Donald Trump and his allies are “stonewalling” and that some have “signaled they will not fully cooperate with the committee,” which may explain the committee’s tactics. But they also use language that paints Trump associates as victims. For example, Schmidt and Broadwater write that “broad” subpoenas to banks, telecommunications, and social media companies “have swept up the personal data of Trump family members and allies, local politicians and at least one member of Congress.” Later they note that “Mr. Trump’s allies have grown angry … at the expansive list of people questioned, some of whom, these allies maintain, had minimal to no involvement in the events of Jan. 6.”
The article does not evaluate this claim, omitting that every subpoena explains why each individual may have relevant information. Nor does it mention the Jan. 6 committee’s legal mandate “to investigate and report upon the facts, circumstances, and causes relating to the January 6, 2021, domestic terrorist attack … and relating to the interference with the peaceful transfer of power” (emphasis added). Without this information, “minimal to no involvement in the events of Jan. 6” might be convincing. With it, readers would know it’s reasonable to question anyone involved in the broader self-coup attempt that caused those events.
The article mentions the 2020 election only once, in a quote from Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat who helped lead the first Trump impeachment inquiry. That frames Trump trying to overturn the election as partisan spin, rather than what it is: objective fact. (We don’t know all the details, but the fact that he tried to stay in power despite losing reelection has been proven beyond dispute.)
The timing of this misleading piece is especially unfortunate coming on the heels of the Republican Party’s official censure of Republican Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for serving on the Jan. 6 committee, rather than going along with Trump’s lies about it as the GOP wants. That document, which passed the Republican National Committee by unanimous vote, goes far beyond calling for party unity in preparation for this November’s midterm elections, declaring the Jan. 6 investigation to be “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” It’s an open embrace of political violence.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel tried to walk it back on Twitter, amending “that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol.” But the document doesn’t say that. So the best we can say is the Republicans who voted for it wanted to denounce the Jan. 6 investigation enough that they didn't notice or didn’t care that it didn’t distinguish what they were defending from the violence.
Who are these supposed “ordinary citizens,” I wondered, and how are they supposedly being persecuted? McDaniel told The Washington Post that “she was particularly upset when an elderly, recently widowed friend of hers was subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 committee,” but did not say who. Independent reporter Marcy Wheeler figured out it’s probably Kathy Berden, whose husband died last August. Berden is the National Committeewoman for the Michigan GOP, and was among the Michigan Republicans who tried to pass themselves off as Electoral College Electors for Donald Trump (Joe Biden won the state by over 154,000 votes). While Berden may have no involvement in the events of Jan. 6, it’s more than reasonable to suspect she may have some relevant information about Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.
And the “persecution”? The Jan. 6 committee sent her a subpoena asking her to appear for a deposition. It specifies “we are not seeking information about your political views or your efforts in the 2020 presidential campaign more generally,” but about “your role and participation in the purported slate of electors casting votes for Donald Trump.”
The worst part of the New York Times article comes when it compares the Jan. 6 investigation to the Benghazi investigation:
By comparison, the House select committee that spent two and a half years investigating the 2012 Benghazi attack issued just a dozen or so subpoenas — a small fraction of the number issued by the Jan. 6 committee so far — and made no criminal referrals. The Jan. 6 panel has already recommended criminal contempt of Congress charges against three witnesses who refused to cooperate, and one, Stephen K. Bannon, has already been indicted by the Justice Department.
But what explains these differences? The Times does not say.
Allow me to clear up the mystery.
That House select committee was conducting the sixth House investigation into the Benghazi attack. (That’s sixth just in the Republican-controlled House. There were 10 overall.)
After four Americans were killed in Libya, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, it was important to identify security flaws, and inform debates on the trade-offs between diplomatic openness and “Fortress America” safety. State Department and Senate investigations focused on that, but House Republicans were more interested in what the Obama administration said about the attack.
White House officials first claimed it spontaneously resulted from demonstrations over a video mocking Muhammad — which were taking place at the U.S. embassy in Egypt, as well as Libya — and later revised to call it a pre-planned terrorist attack that used the protests as cover. The premature public assessment exhibited some “not our fault, no one could’ve seen this coming” spin, and warranted criticism. But a scandal it was not.
Five House committees conducted their own investigations into Benghazi and did not turn up evidence of “deliberate wrongdoing” by any Obama officials. Then Republicans launched another investigation, creating a Select Committee. It reached the same conclusion.
The sixth House Benghazi investigation lasted 2.5 years because Republicans weren’t finding anything new, but wanted it in the news as long as possible. The Jan. 6 investigation is uncovering new facts, but aims to finish in less than 1.5 years because the GOP is sympathetic to the attack and the lies that caused it, and will probably shut down the investigation and sweep the event under the rug if they win control of the House this November.
Benghazi: Issued few subpoenas because the event and its causes, while important, weren’t especially big, and few Americans were involved.
Jan. 6: Issued many subpoenas because the event and its causes are big, and numerous Americans were involved in various ways.
Benghazi: Made no criminal referrals because people they asked to testify (e.g., Hillary Clinton) came and answered questions.
Jan. 6: Made criminal referrals for contempt of Congress because some people they asked to testify refused legal subpoenas (e.g., Steve Bannon).
Schmidt and Broadwater could have provided readers with this context, explaining that the first House investigation into Jan. 6 differs from the sixth House investigation into Benghazi because what they were investigating, and the responses investigators got, weren’t alike. Evidently, the Times didn’t think that was important.
Benghazi is the one investigation the reporters compare to Jan. 6 themselves. Whitewater (an inquiry into a real estate deal involving Bill and Hillary Clinton that did not find evidence to link them to criminal activity, but did eventually morph into the unrelated Monica Lewinski scandal) and Iran-Contra get mentioned in a quote from a Trump staffer’s lawyer:
“Having lived through and being a part of every major congressional investigation over the past 50 years from Iran-contra to Whitewater to everything else, this is the mother of all investigations and a quantum leap for Congress in a way I’ve never seen before,” said Stanley Brand, a Democrat and the former top lawyer for the House who is now representing Dan Scavino, one of Mr. Trump’s closest aides, in the investigation.
Once again, Schmidt and Broadwater don’t evaluate the claim — is it actually a “quantum leap for Congress,” and if so, why? — but they do give space for Brand to issue a warning: “When a frontier is pushed back, it doesn’t recede … Just wait if the Republicans take over.”
And why introduce Brand as “a Democrat”? Everyone is entitled to legal counsel, so it’s reasonable for Brand to represent Scavino. But whether inadvertent or intentional, introducing Brand by his party affiliation makes him seem like an unbiased arbiter. After all, if a Democrat is describing what Democrats are doing, it’s not driven by partisanship. But Brand’s not unbiased. He’s a paid advocate for a top Trump aide subpoenaed by the investigation.
The egregious false equivalence to Benghazi, and the biased references to Iran-Contra and Whitewater, are the only comparisons in the article. Watergate and 9/11 don’t come up.
Jan. 6 isn’t really like anything else in U.S. history. We never saw a president try to stay in power after losing reelection before. But for investigations, the closest analogues are Watergate (a sitting president’s abuses of power related to reelection) and 9/11 (a complex, violent attack on America).
By making Benghazi its main analogue for Jan. 6, and by not mentioning the Watergate or 9/11 investigations, the Times falsely communicates that this investigation is manufactured to smear political opponents, wrongly downplaying the seriousness.
In hindsight, Benghazi was a test the mainstream media failed. The sixth House investigation into the attack was conducted in bad faith, unsubtly aimed at manufacturing the impression of scandal to damage political opponents. It eventually released a report acknowledging “no evidence of wrongdoing.” In June 2016, the New York Times reported this as the end of one of the “most bitterly partisan congressional investigations in history,” as if bad faith manipulations and objecting to bad faith manipulations are equal.
They reported it this way even though Rep. Kevin McCarthy (now the Republican Minority Leader in the House) bragged on television in September 2015 about what Republicans were doing:
Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.
I disagree with those who say the media should see its mission as defending democracy, especially if that means going easy on Joe Biden. That’s not their job, and could easily backfire.
Their priority should be truth. Be fair — rely on evidence, speak to a variety of sources, hold politicians to the same standard, don’t take quotes out of context, etc. — but don’t treat facts and falsehoods as equal. Instead, much of the mainstream media sees its job as balance, in which they start from the premise that Democrats and Republicans are basically equal, and force facts to fit that frame, even when the two parties are dramatically different.
I’m not under the impression that media prioritizing truth over balance will transform American politics. I don’t think a New York Times report on the Jan. 6 committee that refrains from false equivalence to Benghazi will do much of anything besides making Times readers and the larger discourse better informed. They should do a good job for its own sake.
A featured New York Times editorial nailed this on the anniversary of Jan. 6:
In short, the Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends. … Truly grappling with the threat ahead means taking full account of the terror of that day a year ago. Thanks largely to the dogged work of a bipartisan committee in the House of Representatives, this reckoning is underway.
Now maybe the editors could tell the newsroom.