Fox News prime-time hosts barely mentioned Hurricane Sandy on Wednesday night, even as MSNBC and CNN reported non-stop on the massive cleanup efforts just south of Fox's Manhattan studio and throughout the surrounding region devastated by the storm.
Instead, the Fox News hosts focused on the upcoming presidential election and the Sept. 11, 2012, consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya -- a story that’s been a mainstay on the cable network over the past six weeks amid suggestions of a White House cover-up. While Fox News correspondents have done solid reporting and raised legitimate questions for the Obama administration to answer, some of the network’s on-air hosts have been fanning the flames of conspiracy in what's been dubbed "Benghazi-gate."
"The White House was quick to release a picture of the president from the Situation Room watching the bin Laden raid and then Hurricane Sandy two days ago," said Sean Hannity on Wednesday night, in his only mention of the natural disaster during his hourlong 9 p.m. show. "Where's the photo from the night four Americans died in Benghazi?"
None of Fox News' prime-time hosts brought up President Barack Obama's response to the storm, which included touring the battered New Jersey shore with Republican Gov. Chris Christie earlier on Wednesday. Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist and Fox News contributor, did bring up that bipartisan moment, which shows the president in a light more positive than he typically receives on the Roger Ailes-run network. But immediately after Trippi's segment on the election, host Greta Van Susteren teased the next one: "Did the Obama administration deliberately mislead Americans about Libya?" she asked.
Fox News' 9 p.m. host had similar questions on his mind Wednesday.
"What did the president know? When did he know it?" Hannity asked former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. During the segment, Hannity zeroed in on "three aspects" of inquiry "before, during and after" -- meaning who was involved in determining the level of security at the Benghazi compound before the attack, who decided whether to send assistance during it, and who determined how the attack would be publicly described afterward.
This past Friday, Fox's Pentagon correspondent Jennifer Griffin published a report alleging that CIA agents in an annex near the diplomatic compound had requested backup three times during the assault and were denied. She wrote that former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods and two others disobeyed orders to stand down and went to the main compound to help. Woods was later killed in fighting back at the intelligence annex.
On Wednesday, Fox's Catherine Herridge reported on a previously unseen cable from a security officer in Benghazi, who raised concerns that the compound would not be able to fend off a "coordinated attack."
Herridge's story matches other assertions from security officers at the compound that they did not have enough security and further undercuts the Obama administration's early suggestions that the attack was simply a response to an obscure anti-Islam video.
Fox News hosts have gone further, seeking to draw the president directly into the controversy, something the evidence has yet to support. In place of hard evidence, Fox analysts and hosts have turned largely to rumor and speculation, homing in on suggestions that Obama may have personally blocked, or failed to order, a rescue mission during the assault.
One of the most dramatic claims came from Hannity himself, who said on Tuesday night that he had been told about -- but not heard -- an audiotape in which Woods and other agents could be heard "begging for help" from supervisors.
"My sources tell me it's pretty damning," Hannity said Tuesday. "You'll learn it here first."
That same night, Gingrich told Van Susteren that he had heard a "rumor" that other television networks had emails from the White House ordering that the CIA agents not help those under attack.
"There is a rumor -- I want to be clear, it's a rumor -- that at least two networks have emails from the National Security Advisor's office telling a counterterrorism group to stand down," Gingrich said.
Gingrich’s rumor was picked up Wednesday by The Daily Caller, a news and opinion site edited by Fox News contributor Tucker Carlson. The Drudge Report, an influential conservative aggregator, then splashed a link to the article across its site. Also on Wednesday, Gingrich repeated his claim to Hannity and denounced the White House for failing to offer a full timeline of its actions during the attack.
Back on the network Wednesday, following the White House's flat denial of the claim that it halted aid to those under attack, Gingrich said to Hannity, "There were clearly people in Benghazi asking for assistance. So what does that mean? Does it mean it was cut off somewhere? That the president, although he's commander in chief, did not know that they were asking for assistance?"
The CIA and the White House have denied all reports that they refused assistance that night, and Griffin's original Fox report does not state explicitly who supposedly denied the request for help, pinning the blame on "the CIA chain of command" and "higher-ups at the [secure] annex."
Both Griffin and CBS have reported that a special operations rescue unit was available just a few hours away in Sicily, but that it was not dispatched until after the attack was over.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week that the decision to send in a rescue team is not undertaken lightly or without a solid understanding of what they will encounter. "The basic principle is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on, without having some real-time information about what's taking place," Panetta said.
That danger was highlighted by something else that Fox's Griffin reported. Glen Doherty, one of the former SEALs who died during the fighting in Benghazi, was part of a "quick-reaction force" that arrived from Tripoli amid the attack, she wrote.
But uncertainty hasn't stopped Fox News from airing speculation about the president's response to the attack. When Van Susteren on Wednesday asked Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who sits on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, what might have happened with the rescue team, he responded, "If they were ordered to do so, they would have gone in there and helped save those people. But they did not, because I don't believe the president gave that order."
The narrative of events in Benghazi promoted by Fox News, which has an outsized role in the conservative-media echo chamber, has been slammed by liberal media watchdogs as hyperventilation ahead of a tight presidential election. The intensity of its coverage has also given rise to numerous, perhaps inevitable, complaints that other outlets were ignoring the story.
The tone of the Fox News coverage has come under some criticism from individuals at the network.
On Wednesday night, Fox host Geraldo Rivera took to Twitter to decry the "GOP bloodlust" about the Benghazi incident, calling it "insincere" and "desperate." Referring specifically to the often-repeated claim on Fox that Obama failed to send a rescue team that would have saved the former SEALs, Rivera described such a move as unfeasible and militarily unprecedented. "Life is not an action movie," he said.
And Juan Williams, a Fox News analyst considered to be on the liberal side of the network's political spectrum, recently wrote a column in The Hill newspaper in which he bashed the "deliberate misinformation" campaign of the Republican Party over Benghazi.
Without naming Fox directly, Williams offered "corrections" to three claims often made on the network: that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, deliberately misled the public on the cause of the attack; that more security would have helped those in Benghazi; and that the episode is proof of a resurgent al Qaeda.
"Once the political spin stops, the bottom line is there is no evidence so far to support the Romney camp's claim of incompetence or a cover-up by the administration," said Williams, who has sparred on air with Hannity about the attack. "There is only a tragic attack on the United States, our understanding of which is becoming clearer as new intelligence comes to light."
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