As Republicans and their media allies scramble to contain the damage from Rep. Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) comments on Fox News, where he admitted the allegedly non-partisan Benghazi select committee was created to sabotage Hillary Clinton's political career, note that the other key player in this story is the Beltway press. And like Republicans, reporters and pundits who have feasted off Benghazi -- and the supposedly-related Clinton email story -- now have a chance to come to terms with a new political reality.
And that reality is that the cover of legitimacy has been blown away. McCarthy's comments revealed a poorly-kept secret and now everyone has to acknowledge their unobstructed view of the crass partisanship in play.
Having handed Democrats such a blunt instrument to attack the GOP's permanent-scandal infrastructure, McCarthy's comments could represent a turning point of sort. My hunch is that many D.C. journalists liked it better when they could pretend the Benghazi and email pursuits were strictly fact-finding missions, but it is now much harder to cling to that farce.
The fact is that for years the Beltway press has had the chance to cast a critical eye on the GOP's Benghazi obsession, to ask pointed questions about the clear abuse of power and the use of taxpayer dollars to advance a political agenda, through a committee virtually subsidizing Republican opposition research for a presidential campaign.
Instead, the press mostly checked any skepticism and was happily recruited to be part of the Republican "scandal" production. The press liked the story the Benghazi committee was trying to tell. (A swirling scandal in the Obama White House. Will Clinton's campaign be doomed?) Much of the press liked being fed morsels of information, which were then nearly always related to news consumers with strong GOP flavoring.
Recall that when Republicans rolled out the select committee last year, much of the Beltway press seemed almost giddy with anticipation, busy suggesting that big troubles lay ahead for Democrats because of looming questions about the Libya terror attack. (Remember when the Benghazi select committee claimed it would actually investigate the Libya terror attack?) Of less interest to much of the political press was the fact that there had already been seven government inquiries into Benghazi and that none had uncovered any administration wrongdoing. In fact, several had completely debunked favorite Republican conspiracy theories. ("Stand down" orders were definitely notgiven.)
So in a way, McCarthy's comments didn't simply reveal the truth about Republican objectives, they also highlighted the press' pliant role. Going forward, journalists have a clear choice: they can finally decouple themselves from the increasingly farcical, and sprawling, Benghazi production, or become more deeply mired in the folly. (It's probably too late, though, for people like National Journal's Ron Fournier, who repeatedly backed all kind of bogus Republican claims about the White House and Benghazi.)
In the wake of McCarthy's accidental accuracy, a handful of prominent media voices have unequivocally stated the truth. At the New York Times, those voices included editorial board member Carol Giacomo: The Benghazi committee is "a partisan witch hunt targeting Hillary Rodham Clinton" and has "shed no significant new light on the Benghazi attack." And today, the New York Times' entire editorial board joined in, calling the Benghazi committee "an insult to the memory of four slain Americans," and urging Republicans to disband the partisan inquisition.
But the Times editorial board has been honest about the committee's true, absurd nature since day one. Whether other media outlets will finally follow their lead remains to be seen.
There's no question that McCarthy's blunder of accidentally telling the truth on national television has changed the political calculus in recent days. McCarthy's campaign to be next Speaker of the House is suddenly in danger of being derailed. Republican allies fear the investigation apparatus is permanently stained. And Democrats on the Benghazi committee, who have complained bitterly about Republican behavior for months, have essentially declared war on chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and are now potentially moving to disband the committee all together. (They likely don't have the votes to do so, but the Benghazi storyline has clearly changed.)
And with Democrats fighting back, that means the media narrative should, and can, change in important ways. Just look at the nuggets about committee malfeasance that we're now learning: "Gowdy Cancelled All Planned Hearings Other Than Hillary Clinton's After NYT Email Story."
Meanwhile, Clinton released her first national ad of the campaign cycle featuring Benghazi: "The Republicans have spent millions attacking Hillary because she's fighting for everything they oppose." (Vox called the 30-second spot "devastating.") And while it remained unstated, the ad worked as a critique of the press and its Benghazi malpractice as well.
It's true that Democrats on the committee and on Capitol Hill have for years been complaining about the Republicans' institutionalized scandal pursuits, and the way the GOP set up a Congressional infrastructure to feed the press wild allegations and create costly distractions, just like they did during the 1990s under President Bill Clinton.
I suspect much of the press knew the Democratic claims about the Benghazi committee were accurate, but they wanted to carry on with the charade. The press was invested and wanted to maintain the deniability that Republicans provided. (i.e. These are serious endeavors!) They wanted to pretend this circular, dog-chasing-tail Benghazi/email pursuit was presidentially important and required limitless resources.
So a game-changing revelation about the Benghazi committee had to come from a prominent Republican in order to alter the conversation.
And now it has.
Blog ››› ERIC BOEHLERT