You can no longer legally watch the Oct. 27 edition of 60 Minutes. It’s been pulled, the original page deader than a healthcare.gov login. But if you caught it that night, or watched it online the next day, you were told to brace for an exclusive about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi. “You’ll hear for the first time from a security officer who witnessed the attack,” correspondent Lara Logan said in her introduction. “He calls himself Morgan Jones—a pseudonym he’s using for his own safety.”
The segment laced previously revealed Benghazi facts into a narrative of what “Jones” had seen and done, derring-do like “[scaling] the 12-foot-high wall of the compound that was still overrun with al-Qaida fighters” and smashing a terrorist’s face with his rifle. After it aired, some of the Republicans who’d been trying and trying to unearth more facts about the deadly night told their Twitter followers to check with CBS.
“Every American should watch @60Minutes piece on #Benghazi last night,” wrote Arizona Sen. John McCain. “We must know all the facts about what happened.” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham announced that he’d discuss the story on Fox & Friends. Later, he pledged to block presidential nominees in the Senate until he got more access to witnesses.
At that moment, the team at Media Matters was strategizing about how to fight back. David Brock’s watchdog group had been founded nine years ago largely as an antidote to Fox News stories about the presidential race. Today, with new president Bradley Beychok, Media Matters has grown to 75 staffers. Debunking the 60 Minutes piece, he says, was “priority one, priority two, and priority three.” And as of Nov. 8, the story has been retracted, 60 Minutes has apologized, and “Jones” (real name Dylan Davies) is doing no interviews as his publisher recalls the hardback from booksellers. (Slate had also run an excerpt from the book’s prologue.)
“This is a good example of when we’re able to deploy any and all resources needed on a subject of importance,” says Beychok. “This is a topic we saw coming—as it’s been in the conservative media for months and months. So we were ready for this.”
That’s what worries conservatives. Davies hung himself on the story, writing an incident report that claimed he was still in his villa when the attack happened, and then telling the FBI something similar. (CBS News didn’t know the first fact, and Davies later told reporter Eli Lake he didn’t write the report.) That threw the entire saga into doubt, even though it wasn’t pivotal to the demand for a select committee to investigate Benghazi—what Republicans have asked for all year.
“I think he may be falsely accused,” said McCain. “It appears to me as if they are trying to shoot the messenger here, rather than try to explain the total mishandling of this whole situation. You discredit the Britisher because you can’t discredit his message.” The role of Media Matters, he said, was “not surprising.” (Graham has remained quiet, but is making a Sunday TV appearance.)
“Media Matters has scored a win with its attack on CBS News—and rightly so,” wrote the regretful Joel Pollak, editor of Breitbart.com, in an editorial. (He had originally characterized the story as CBS “try[ing] to atone for [the] Benghazi cover-up,” for not releasing a dissembling quote on the attack from President Obama during the election.) “That has not changed the basic facts of the Benghazi story: Obama and Clinton failed to protect U.S. diplomats, then lied to the public about a YouTube video. But it will make journalists more wary of covering the story, and especially of covering Clinton. They will realize now there is no room for error.”
If that wasn’t exactly the goal, progressives are comfortable with the spoils. One administration source compared this fallout to the implosion, back in May, of an ABC News story that overstated what memos revealed about the White House’s involvement in Sunday show talking points about Benghazi. Maybe the Benghazi scandal has faded because gnarlier scandals popped up afterward, but stumbling media and congressional Pinkertons definitely helped.
So Media Matters’ win has to be seen as an early sign of Democratic plotting for 2016. Just weeks before the CBS story, Brock and Media Matters’ Ari Rabin-Havt published The Benghazi Hoax, an e-book attempt to lock the scandal in a coffin and hammer in silver nails. In more than 90 pages and 198 footnotes, the authors aimed to prove that “more than a dozen half-baked or completely bogus allegations about the attack in Libya have been raised … and each one has been debunked by credible sources.”
The organization was well-prepped for 60 Minutes. The body blow to the story was really dealt by Karen DeYoung, the Washington Post reporter who pulled the incident report.
Media Matters largely amplified that scoop, but did it ever—the press shop released a letter from Brock demanding answers from the episode’s producers, turning the story into a back-and-forth media war. As of Friday afternoon, since the CBS episode aired Media Matters had run 36 pieces about it.
That’s what Media Matters was built for. “We are certainly better-prepared and more focused on taking our arguments, and making them effective, and disseminating them widely,” said then-Sen. Hillary Clinton at a progressive conference in Chicago in 2007. “We’re really putting together a network in the blogosphere, in a lot of the new progressive infrastructure, institutions that I helped to start and support like Media Matters and Center for American Progress.”
Since then, in the Obama years, Media Matters has occasionally deployed its researchers to mount full-spectrum defenses that the administration couldn’t do by itself. It was Brock’s group, for example, that dug up evidence to defend “safe schools” czar Kevin Jennings from allegations that he was a statutory rapist. That happened right after the firing of Van Jones, the “green jobs” czar, who could not explain away why he’d insulted conservatives and called himself a communist. Media Matters went on war footing, where it’s remained.
Just don’t point out that Hillary Clinton’s taken some credit for building the organization, or that Brock’s move to the left started with an apology to the Clintons, or that the former secretary of state, whom conservatives hope to bring down over Benghazi, may run for president soon. That’s not what this was about, they say.
“My hope is it causes people investigating the story to ask: Is what I’m hearing too good to be true?” said Rabin-Havt. “On both sides, there’s a tendency, when you hear something that lines up with your point of view, to believe it. Conservatives, when they hear something like this, always jump on it. Sometimes you see major media figures led astray. You want to prevent that.”