October 27, 2015

THE MCEVOY MINUTE | How the Media Got Clinton’s Benghazi Testimony Wrong

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Last Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the House Select Committee on Benghazi – the eighth of its kind since the attacks on the Libyan diplomatic compound in 2012 that killed four Americans. Clinton had testified in front of the committee before, but due to new information and evidence – namely, the emails discovered on Clinton’s personal account that she used during her time as Secretary of State – she was called to the floor again, this time for an 11-hour hearing.  In the weeks leading up to the Committee hearing, Clinton experienced a significant drop in poll numbers (falling 20 percent over the course of four months), in part due to the negative media focus on her use of private email while in the State Department. After a strong debate performance on October 13th, however, Clinton’s poll numbers began to climb back up, arguably due to the media’s strong assertions that Clinton “won” the debate. Many media outlets are now using similar language in describing the committee hearing, claiming that despite the Republican party’s opposite intentions, Clinton won once again.

Of course, it is not surprising that nearly all news sources covered Clinton’s testimony – it is a controversial issue involving controversial politicians in an unexpectedly contested primary. What is surprising, though, is the seemingly unanimous agreement that Clinton “won,” since little coverage is devoted to analyzing the actual content of the hearing. Instead, most of the news coverage was devoted to describing the Republican Party’s ulterior motives to the hearing, Clinton’s strong composure and emotional statements, or the effects it will have on her campaign moving forward. Many websites, including CNN, even posted humorous commentary of the hearing, including GIFs and lists of the most “absurd” moments. And yet, the hearing was 11 hours long, so undoubtedly real information surrounding the attacks was discussed, despite various sources claiming that the testimony was “a waste” that did “much of nothing.”

I do not mean, however to disagree with the media’s assertions that Clinton held her ground and demonstrated poise in the face of harsh interrogation and borderline personal attacks. It is obvious that she had prepared well for the hearing, especially after the negative media attention she incurred following her last testimony when she infamously asked, “What difference – at this point, what difference does it make?” regarding the motive for the Benghazi attacks. Rather, my issue is with how the media covers important political events like this hearing and the primary debates, focusing on declaring a winner or creating entertainment out of the event instead of providing hard facts and information to the public. It is true, of course, that the candidates do some of this themselves – some conservative news sources accused Clinton of avoiding giving direct answers to questions in both the recent debate and last week’s hearing – but the media exacerbates this problem by focusing on the drama of the issue rather than relaying actual statements of fact that Clinton and other members of the Committee made during the hearing. Our system of government works because we have always had an intermediary between the government and the people that decides what information is important for the public to know so that they can stay informed and, in turn, be active participants in our democracy. Because of this, as the media turns more towards entertainment in news and delivers less information grounded in fact, the public becomes less capable of making political decisions.

Political scientists have proposed that people turn out to vote – one of the most basic forms of political participation – when they perceive that they will benefit more from voting for a certain candidate than it will cost them to vote. Often these costs are associated with the time and effort it will take to get to the polling sites; however, it can also refer to the effort it takes to gather enough political information to cast a vote. Other studies have shown that while education level tends to be associated with political participation, voter turnout has not increased in recent decades even as access to higher education has. This is due in large part to a new kind of media – there are an overwhelming number of choices of news sources, but it is also easier to avoid political coverage completely than ever before. And as discussed earlier, many news sources focus more on entertainment than actual facts and evidence, making it harder to gather real political information. While it is true that the media has to make money and that they might get more “clicks” or “hits” by posting the article covering the hearing with GIFs than an in depth analysis of the content covered, the citizens of this country have a right to media coverage that is less biased and more focused on the issues than the system we are currently subjected to. Without it, our democracy cannot function as effectively as it was intended, and we will continue to see a lack of citizen participation in government, one of the hallmark traits of a true democracy.