THE BLOG

How a Real News Story Became the 'Obama Watched Them Die' Meme

10/26/2012 08:43 am ET | Updated Dec 26, 2012
  • Larry Womack Writer, layabout and all-around nogoodnik; web publisher; former Associate News Editor, The Huffington Post

I have now several times encountered dramatic images of the attack in Benghazi accompanied by oversize text that tastefully accuses American officials of watching idly while Americans were murdered in an opportunistic terror assault during the 9/11 anniversary and Innocence of Muslims demonstrations.

The idea is absurd on its face to even the most casual observer. Firsthand accounts of the harrowing events of that night are completely at-odds with the claim. Ambassador Stevens either died or his body was left behind because nobody could see through the smoke. Reinforcements from Tripoli were on the scene. The CIA was, we have come to strongly suspect, just about a mile away. Libyan police died on the scene, alongside American personnel. The accusation just doesn't jibe with what we know.

But because Internet memes apparently now pass for fact checks at Forbes, I suppose somebody must respond. That's where this piece comes in, I suppose. So, let's talk about how a CBS report about a rescue effort amid a fury of confusion became an Internet meme about no attempted rescue while everyone watched on the big screen.

On Oct. 24, CBS news ran a story about the Benghazi attack. Ironically enough, its focus was a special response team that was dispatched from Europe -- but never made it -- to the CIA building where embassy personnel, Libyan police and backup from Tripoli had taken up shelter. We have come to believe that it was a CIA building not from that story but because Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah,) told the whole world as much live on C-SPAN while his Republican colleagues coolly tried to carry on exploiting the tragedy for political gain without revealing that inconvenient -- and quite classified -- truth. And we know that other backup had arrived because, unlike people who create these graphics, you and I read the news and have decided to acquaint ourselves with the horrific chain of events before firing up Photoshop.

The story concluded with the following:

Meanwhile, CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports that the FBI and State Department have reviewed video from security cameras that captured the attack on the consulate.

The audio feed of the attack was being monitored in real time in Washington by diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb. CBS News has learned that video of the assault was recovered 20 days later from the more than 10 security cameras at the compound.

The government security camera footage of the attack was in the possession of local Libyans until the week of Oct. 1. The video will be among the evidence that the State Department's review board will analyze to determine who carried out the assault.

Forbes' Larry Bell rather quickly managed to twist that into:

Just one hour after the seven-hour-long terrorist attacks upon the U.S. consulate in Benghazi began, our commander-in-chief, vice president, secretary of defense and their national security team gathered together in the Oval Office listening to phone calls from American defenders desperately under siege and watching real-time video of developments from a drone circling over the site. Yet they sent no military aid that might have intervened in time to save lives.

Now, that... that takes some Olympic-quality mental gymnastics. There's a lot going on there, really. Just layer upon layer of error. We see varied waves and sources of backup including military presented as "no military aid," a live audio feed conflated with video obtained twenty days later and Charlene Lamb starring as "our commander-in-chief, vice president, secretary of defense and their national security team." Wow, that Charlene must be one hell of a lady! She's the president, half the cabinet and can see with her ears!

An alternative (and more disappointing,) explanation is that Forbes has no editorial or ethical standards as a publisher and Larry Bell strives to one day add a particularly pungent stench to Hell. It's all pretty ballsy, considering the headline of the source story was, "U.S. military poised for rescue in Benghazi."

Funny story: Bell accounts for that headline in a similarly creative fashion, later in his piece. You see, CBS reports that, "A team of American military commandos was sent from Europe to an airfield at Sigonella, in Sicily, Italy, putting them at least an hour's flight away from Benghazi... But U.S. officials say it did not arrive in Sicily until after the attack was over." Bell reinterprets that to mean that forces were, "480 miles away at the U.S. military base in Sigonella, Sicily, but were never dispatched." On their way from elsewhere but too late, stationed there and never dispatched? Why that's just "to-may-to, to-mah-to" over at Forbes!

How do I know that the CBS piece provided the raw material for the jumble of lies that was Bell's rant, you ask? Because he tells us so, explicitly, in said rant. "CBS News has reported," he wrote, "that a series of email alerts received late Tuesday evening provides additional information that was known by Obama administration officials shortly after the attack commenced." Those cables are the basis of the story, "U.S. military poised for rescue in Benghazi," which contained the three paragraphs wildly remixed into Bell's claims. (Close observers will note that the time stamp at Forbes is earlier than the CBS link I have provided. I feel it is safe to assume that that has to do with a re-publication or difference in publication time zones, rather than Mr. Bell's mad fortune telling skills.) He also acknowledges that ABC had obtained the cables separately, but presents CBS as his primary source.

On the topic of citing sources, here's another fun fact: the man behind this insane jumble of lies or buffoonish misreadings is a professor at the University of Houston and bona fide climate change denier!

To be fair, the CBS story cannot be the entire basis for Bell's outlandish claims. The existence of drone footage of the final hour of the assault, also recovered later, is absurdly misrepresented as the source of the "live video." You know, just to make things sound really hush-hush and super villain-y.

The day after Bell's, ahem, creative repackaging of the CBS story, fringe conservative blogs found themselves off and running with the fantasy. Hate radio personality and probable Wikipedia entry self-author Lars Larson went on Fox News to more or less repeat the claim, thereby entering it into the conservative canon. You'll now find stories at World Net Daily and on various smaller, fringe blogs, as well.

But mostly, you'll find graphics polluting social media. They present images that, if indeed taken from the videos, were acquired three weeks later. They are presented with shocking text claiming it was watched live by a callous U.S. President who sat and... what? Cracked open a bottle of champagne, laughed diabolically and twirled his handlebar mustache? Thought about how the death of an American ambassador on his watch would surely seal his re-election and, therefore, his secret bid to turn America into a Muslim theocracy where white men are slaves to the African master race and white women are forced to abort their babies at eight months under penalty of sex change? I can only imagine so, as that is exactly the level of thinking we're dealing with in these lies.

And, sadly, it's a level of thinking that we must occasionally address.