Using the U.S. Benghazi embassy attack as an example, Eric Sentell reveals the “echo chamber” effect in partisan journalism.
“Rogue U.S. General Arrested,” the story of U.S. General Carter Ham being fired for disobeying orders to “stand down” while terrorists attacked the U.S. Benghazi embassy was published by BeforeItsNews.com on Monday, Oct. 29. By the next day, it had already proliferated on the internet.
Allegedly, General Ham learned of the embassy’s requests for help and quickly readied a “rapid response unit.” He then decided to disobey orders to not deploy the unit. According to the story, “Within 30 seconds to a minute after making the move to respond, his second in command apprehended General Ham and told him that he was now relieved of his command.”
The story cites and links to “reports,” which turn out to be an article from Times 24/7, the online edition of The Washington Times. Times 24/7 published its version of the story, written by James Dobbins, on Sunday, October 28. It presents the same “reports” but specifies their source: a “RUMINT” posting on “TigerDroppings” by someone calling him or herself “Ambassador.”
RUMINT is a military acronym for “Rumor Intelligence.” “TigerDroppings” is a discussion board for students and fans of Louisiana State University. On his or her TigerDroppings profile, “Ambassador” lists “Self-Employed/Restaurants/Catering” as an occupation.
At the end of the Time 24/7 version, after paid advertisements, one finds a link to “the original article at The Washington Times” by James Dobbins. It recounts the same allegations, citing the same TigerDroppings post. Tucked in the story’s middle as an afterthought, the reader finds these lines: “This version of events contradicts Mr. Panetta’s October 25 statement that General Ham advised against intervention. But so far there is nothing solid to back it up” (emphasis added). Speculation about Ham’s firing and some general Obama criticism follow.
Knowing about the original Washington Times article containing these crucial lines depends on scrolling down far enough to notice the link after the ads following Time 24/7’s abbreviated version. Even if readers find the original article, they still have to notice the short line tucked in the middle of more attention-catching criticism. As someone who teaches rhetoric and composition for a living, I believe this organization of information is a deliberate effort to obfuscate the baselessness of “Ambassador’s” claims.
Another example from TheBlaze.com links to the same “original Fox News report” five times but presents only the portions that damage President Obama. It ignores Leon Panetta’s comments on not sending soldiers into an unknown situation. It overlooks unnamed U.S. officials’ arguments that the prolonged gap between the first and second attacks indicated a stable situation.
Besides repeatedly asserting the attack lasted seven hours without mentioning this break in the violence, The Blaze and Fox News also ignore the State Department email stating (about an hour after initial reports of attack) that “the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi had stopped and the compound had been cleared” (Reuters). Clearly, the danger of the situation was not as sustained or clear-cut as some accounts claim.
Then there’s the aftermath. Fox News, The Blaze, and others have repeatedly criticized Obama and his administration for taking so long to characterize the attacks as terrorism. An Oct. 24 Blaze article, for example, cites the much-discussed State Department emails as evidence the Administration knew terrorists were involved “within two hours” of the initial attack.
Yet this Blaze article links to a Reuters story from Oct. 23 that goes into considerable more detail, including this neglected point: “U.S. intelligence officials have emphasized since shortly after the attack that early intelligence reporting about the attack was mixed.” The Blaze certainly knew about this part of the Reuters report, but they ignored it completely in their abbreviated version of the story.
The cited State Department email states that Ansar al-Sharia claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter. However, an Oct. 24 CNN report reveals just how “mixed” the early intelligence was, namely this email. A researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy shared with CNN his RSS feed of Ansar al-Sharia’s Facebook account, which does not show any updates between Sept. 8 and 12.
When the group updated its status on the 12th, it referred to a news conference held earlier in the day to deny any role in the embassy attack and to sympathize with the attackers. Ansar al-Sharia could be lying, of course, but that’s not the point. The point is no one can say the intelligence received on the 11th or 12th was in any way definitive or conclusive.
There’s a clear pattern here. A conservative-leaning mainstream news organization reports some troubling-yet-unsupported “news.” A very conservative non-mainstream news organization reports the concerning claims but not the caveat. They link to several “reports” that reiterate the same unsupported claims, or they link to the same unverified report several times. And they neglect parts of the story that don’t fit their agenda.
In short, they attempt to trap their readers within an “echo chamber” in which the same unverified, unsupported, one-sided claims are repeated often enough to gain the weight of widely accepted truth.
One might think the lack of credible evidence—and the bias it indicates—would discredit the story and the media outlets reporting it, thereby rupturing the echo chamber. Wrong.
People like criticism of their opponents because it confirms their existing worldview. If they critically view their preferred news sources, then they might as well criticize themselves. Conservative news outlets make a special effort to tap into this self-serving bias. Fox, Blaze, and others regularly criticize the mainstream media, asserting they won’t cover certain news due to “liberal bias.” Since mainstream media tend to avoid reporting unsubstantiated claims, Fox News et al. can publish unverified, unsupported, one-sided “news” while simultaneously strengthening its credibility and weakening that of its competitors.
Of course, some indisputable evidence that General Ham was fired because he disobeyed orders to stand down may arise at some point in the future. I don’t have any solid evidence that it didn’t happen, so I can’t claim anything of that kind. Therefore, I’m not debating the reasons Ham was fired or even the ultimate truthfulness of the story’s claims.
I am merely arguing that news requires credible supporting evidence before it can be considered good journalism and responsible news consumption demands critical thinking. Any “news” story that lacks credible evidence should not be taken seriously, and any “news” outlet that habitually presents unsupported claims ought to be avoided.
Especially before visiting the polls.
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