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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has always attracted a fair amount of media attention. But when news broke last week that a close adviser and a top appointee allegedly orchestrated a traffic jam for political retribution, the Republican leader became the top news story of the day.
In fact, Christie’s apology press conference, which lasted nearly two hours and attracted dozens of reporters and cameras, was aired in its entirety on CNN and MSNBC.
On Fox News Sunday, Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist who helped uncover the Watergate scandal, said he wanted to see more reporting on how the events in New Jersey transpired. But Republican strategist and Fox News contributor Karl Rove said he also wanted more reporting on Benghazi and other incidents involving President Barack Obama.
"The amount of attention paid to Chris Christie makes the coverage of Benghazi, at the same time, the coverage of the IRS, pale in significance." Rove said.
In this fact-check we decided to focus on the comparison between the events, and the media coverage, in New Jersey and in Libya.
Counting the stories
Conservatives have long accused the media of covering up controversies in the Obama administration, including the attacks on a U.S. consulate in Libya that resulted in the deaths of ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, and reports that the IRS targeted tea party groups.
Rove pointed us to reports from the Media Research Center, a conservative website critical of the press, highlighting what they say are disparities in the amount of coverage Christie garnered versus other scandals. We link to them here and here for your consideration.
But we also conducted our own analysis to see if Christie’s coverage pales in significance to Benghazi.
It’s fair to say the coverage of Christie’s week was significant. When the story first broke in New Jersey newspapers, every major outlet quickly followed their lead. By Sunday, Christie was a topic of debate on all of the political talk shows.
Just how much was Christie in the news? A quick search through Lexis-Nexis, a research service that tracks the work of the media, found Christie’s name mentioned in 203 transcripts posted from the cable (CNN, Fox and MSNBC) and network (ABC, CBS and NBC) news outlets, plus National Public Radio. CNN led the way with 83 mentions.
A simple search of "Chris Christie" and "bridge" also came up in 30 New York Times articles and 27 Washington Post articles, and 778 times in newspapers and wire stories across the country.
Clearly, Christie became a national story. He is a well-known figure thought by many to be the GOP frontrunner for the presidential nomination in 2016, and a potential scandal in his administration instantly attracted widespread press attention. But how does that compare to the coverage of Benghazi?
It’s tough to put the two controversies side-by-side. The Christie news, which broke under the nose of the New York media, has a clear starting point (when the New Jersey media first reported on it) and climax (Christie’s news conference).
The events surrounding Benghazi garnered immediate attention, but had several watershed moments: Obama’s statement from the White House Rose Garden, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s news blitz pinning the attacks to an anti-Muslim YouTube video, the presidential debate between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney during which Benghazi was an issue, and the congressional hearings featuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among other events.
We decided to focus on the week after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, which occurred Sept. 11, 2012. It’s a little bit longer of a time period to track (the Christie news broke mid-week so we have just four days of search results), but stick with us.
Using the same news outlets we tracked for Christie, we found 250 transcripts that mentioned "Benghazi." Again, CNN led the way with 100 mentions.
There were more than 2,800 stories that contain "Benghazi" in newspapers and wire services, though that also includes international newspapers. Domestically, the New York Times wrote 69 stories and the Washington Post had 49.
Mainstream news outlets also gave airtime and space to Republicans who alleged a cover up on the part of the administration. During Oct. 18-25, 2012, when accusations were especially frequent, CNN and MSNBC referred to "Benghazi cover up" a combined 13 times.
Benghazi was also competing for airtime against other large national news events, like the presidential election and later Hurricane Sandy. With Congress just returning to town, the scandal in Christie’s office broke during a relatively slow week in politics.
How in-depth did they go?
So that’s a quantitative breakdown. How about a qualitative analysis?
Benghazi was a rare international story in 2012 in that Americans actually cared about it.
According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, a nonpartisan think tank, 43 percent of the country told pollsters they "closely followed" the attacks in Benghazi. That made it the eighth most followed news event, trailing continued coverage of the economy and the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Obama’s health care law. It was the only international event in the top 10.
Another 31 percent said they specifically followed the Libya investigation very closely.
That says volumes about how much Americans were exposed to Benghazi reports in the media.
And how about how closely media followed the events in Libya? Well, the New York Times, for starters, had three stories the day after the attack, Sept. 12, 2012. And soon they were starting to challenge early reports on what caused the attacks.
By Sept. 13, the New York Times reported that there were actually two attacks on the embassy, "the first one spontaneous and the second highly organized and possibly aided by anti-American infiltrators of Libya’s young government."
The New York Times did receive criticism from its own ombudsmen, public editor Margaret Sullivan, after the paper did not put on the front page an October congressional hearing on Benghazi. Instead, it was on A3.
But after conservatives held up her column as proof of bias in the press, she penned another column on Oct. 20, 2012, stating "it is utterly wrong to say that the Times has ignored or buried the Libya story. As of Friday, editors had placed it on the front page on 18 days out of 38, sometimes with news, sometimes with analysis. The coverage has been extensive, aggressive and sweeping." The New York Times published an extensive investigation into the Benghazi attack last month.
CNN was criticized strongly by the Obama administration for its initial coverage of Benghazi while questioning the White House narrative. The news outlet ran a heavily cited story documenting the final days of Ambassador Stevens from witness accounts. And when reporting on scene in Libya, CNN found Stevens’ personal diary and aired excerpts from the journal against the wishes of the U.S. State Department (and Stevens’ family).
The network went on to win an award for its coverage of Benghazi.
The New York Times and CNN are just singular examples, and there are others. Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of media and politics at University of Mary Washington, said "at the end of the day, the media was an equal opportunity offender."
"The coverage of Benghazi was heavy, in part because Republicans made an issue of it," said Farnsworth, author of Spinner in Chief: How Presidents Sell Their Policies and Themselves. "The coverage of the ‘bridgegate,’ if you raise it to the level of a a ‘-gate’ scandal, is a reflection of Christie’s prominence in national politics."
Rove said that the coverage of Christie pales "in significance" to the coverage of Benghazi. When news of the attacks on Benghazi broke, coverage was widespread, and it continued through congressional hearings. Moreover, a lot of the coverage questioned the administration’s narrative and response to the attacks. Indeed, Christie has occupied much of the conversation, but it was also in a relatively slow news week. Benghazi garnered significant coverage, even during the height of the presidential election.
Perhaps the outcome of those reports didn’t unearth the conspiracy conservatives alleged and hoped for. More is still likely to come out, and Republicans continue to keep it in the news. But to insinuate the mainstream media ignored the attacks while putting Christie through the ringer goes too far. We rate Rove’s statement False.
Email interview with Karl Rove, Jan. 12, 2014
Phone interview with Stephen Farnsworth, Professor and Director at the University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies, Jan. 12, 2014
Assorted Lexis-Nexis searches, Jan. 12, 2014
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "Election, Tragedies Dominate Top Stories of 2012," Dec. 20, 2012
McClatchy DC, "Ambassador Stevens twice said no to military offers of more security, U.S. officials say," May 14, 2013
CNN, "More details emerge on U.S. ambassador's last moments," Sept. 17, 2012
Washington Post, "CNN vs. the State Department: A long story," Sept. 23, 2012
Columbia Journalism Review, "The Muhammad movie: look who fanned the flames," Jan. 7, 2013
The Atlantic, "Whopper of the Year: 'The Mainstream Media' Ignored Benghazi," Aug. 5, 2013
Investigative Reporters and Editors, 2012 Award winners, accessed Jan. 12, 2014
The New York Times, "Connecting the dots in Libya," Oct. 20, 2012
The New York Times, "In Libya, Chaos Was Followed by Organized Ambush, Official Says," Sept. 13, 2012
Media Research Center, "Deluge: Now 44 Times More TV Coverage of Christie's Traffic Scandal Than in Last Six Months on IRS," Jan. 1, 2014
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