Jonah Goldberg over at the LA Times wants to know "where is the feeding frenzy on the Libya story?" He attributes the lack of mainstream media coverage to "groupthink" on the part of the media. "I don't think there's a conspiracy at work.," he writes. "Rather, I think journalists tend to act on their instincts (some even brag about this; you could look it up). And, collectively, the mainstream media's instincts run liberal, making groupthink inevitable."
Goldberg is a pretty decent columnist but he's falling into a trap here. He, like many on the right, has a view of what he thinks the news ought to be and ascribes any deviation from that view to bias on the part of the media. It's easier for him to believe that there are special media rules -- be they conspiracy or "groupthink" -- which bias media coverage against him ideologically than it is to believe that he might be on the wrong side of an issue.
So, to Libya. Certainly there has been little coverage of the Benghazi attacks in the media as compared to other much more petty late-breaking-stories in elections past. Goldberg points out how the media went nuts for an (ultimately unsubstantiated) story about George W. Bush's DUI arrest, Sarah Palin's all-around-vapidness, and recent Republican rape comments but seems to have passed on the much meatier story of what happened in Benghazi.
The answer, as it happens, can be found on Comedy Central, Monday through Thursday at 11:00 pm EST. As comedian John Stewart has said numerous times "I think their [the media's] bias is towards sensationalism and laziness. I wouldn't say it's towards a liberal agenda."
There's a pleasing irony in the fact that, in the spectrum of American politics, those most likely to advocate for a free market approach to everything are the first to condemn free market media for bias. In reality, of course, our market-driven media responds to what people want to see. That is why Fox has its own loyal, partisan, ideological viewership and everyone else competes for what is left over -- typically by dumbing the news down to the level that it can be consumed in 30 second sound bites intended to draw the viewer in and keep his/her attention fixated until after the next commercial break.
So, given that, why didn't the media grab onto the Benghazi story with both hands? There are four reasons.
1. Americans don't give a damn about Africa. (So why try to sell it to them?)
Libya, as you may have noticed, is on the northern coast of Africa. Its national language is Arabic, it contains few tourist destinations attractive to Americans, and is largely populated by people with whom Americans have a difficult time empathizing. In short, for marketing purposes, Libya may as well be on the dark side of the moon. Consequently it is very difficult to get Americans to care about what happens in Libya, or even find it on a map. In light of that, covering Libya substantively would involve trying to sell American media consumers something they'd rather not think too hard about and the goal of our private media is to turn a profit, not make better voters.
2. The election is about the economy (and changing that doesn't increase profits)
While President Obama more or less verbally beat Mitt Romney about the head and neck with a broken bottle during the third Presidential debate, Romney's lack-luster performance probably won't matter much because, if we are all honest with ourselves, this election was never about foreign policy. Obama knows, Romney knows, and the media knows that the real issues driving Americans to the polls are the recession, the recovery, and the path forward, economically speaking. In contrast, previous media feeding frenzies have happened, or at least ramped up, in comparatively less issue-driven campaigns. Mass media could attempt to shift the public's focus, but why bother? CNN makes the same amount of money regardless of why people watch the news.
3. The President may not have been involved (and no one wants to be wrong).
The US government does stupid things all the time. Those things are rarely news, however, unless they can be easily tied to an elected official. The news media can speculate, but doing so opens them up to the unwelcome prospect of the White House deciding that it's better to own non-involvement than to continue letting the media presume incompetence. It is far, far more likely that the operational decisions which denied air and ground support requests were made according to pre-set rules of engagement and that, well before the military and intelligence operations the area could get their ducks in a row, formulate a workable plan of action, promote it up the chain of command, present it to the President, and get a go-or-no-go order from him, the entire attack was over. If a bad operational decision can be pinned to the President, that's news, but it's hard to sell advertising if your wall-to-wall news coverage amounts to dragging a Lt. Colonel's career through the mud.
4. There's very little new information (so there's nothing to talk about).
Of course, elected and appointed officials are involved after the fact as they're the ones that have to face the media. Part of their job is protecting the career civil servants and military personnel who are just doing their job from the media's baleful stare. To that end, public officials, given the option between appeasing the media and cutting off access to (potentially classified) details of the response to the attack have an easy choice to make. Without new facts the story smothers itself like a fire choked out by lack of oxygen. Since no one, save those with a partisan ax to grind, benefits from leaking more information to the media the story is doomed to obscurity.
Want better, more substantive coverage of the news where markets and the lowest common denominator aren't the only things that determine what gets covered and what doesn't? Turn on NPR, urge your Congressmen to support it in the budget, and remember to donate.