Let's revisit Benghazi and the 1st Amendment

If you didn't get a chance to watch the Benghazi whistleblowers testify before Congress yesterday, you should. Part of what made it so interesting was how dramatically their testimony contradicted the official line received and published by the media in previous months. It was also just a good lesson in how bureaucracy works and how competing interests can impede the search for truth or justice. You may recall that "What difference, at this point, does it make?" was a main takeaway from former Sec. of State Hilary Clinton's fiery testimony on Benghazi.

State Department counterterrorism officer Ed Nordstrom responded to that by saying, as he choked up, “It matters to me personally. It matters to my colleagues, to my colleagues at the Department of State. It matters to the American public for whom we serve. And most importantly, excuse me. It matters to the friends and family of, of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods, who were murdered on September 11th, 2012.”

And Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Benghazi, testified that when he heard Obama administration officials say that the Benghazi attack was due to a blasphemous YouTube video, "I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed."

Now, given who the perpetrators were, the 9/11/12 terrorist attack has serious and complicated religious angles that should be explored. But there was another huge religion angle to this story and I'm disappointed that we didn't see more or better coverage of that angle.

That religion angle is about freedom of religious expression and government action against blasphemy.

For reference, my posts on the matter from last September (aka "a long time ago") hold up well: Missing the forest for the YouTube video, The missing anti-Muslim movie stories, and Journalism means never having to say you’re sorry.

I thought about this angle again when reading Reason's "Hall of Shame" for people who thought the overarching lesson of Benghazi was that freedom of expression needed to be restricted. It's frightening how highly placed or influential some of those people are.

Falsely assessing partial blame for the violence on a piece of artistic expression inflicted damage not just on the California resident who made it—Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is currently serving out a one-year sentence for parole violations committed in the process of producing Innocence—but also on the entire American culture of free speech. In the days and weeks after the attacks, academics and foreign policy thinkers fell over themselves dreaming up new ways to either disproportionately punish Nakoula or scale back the very notion of constitutionally protected expression.

I also thought of that angle when reading Rich Lowry's column in Politico today that began:

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula deserves a place in American history. He is the first person in this country jailed for violating Islamic anti-blasphemy laws.


It's a provocative column and one worth reading if you're concerned about blasphemy and/or government efforts to ban or restrict blasphemy.

The story about this religion angle -- and how First Amendment protections can be weakened in subtle and surprising ways -- must be covered. One reason it's difficult to cover now is that it's a bit of a self-indicting story for the media itself.

There are lessons for how the media should respond to political spin. By and large, all the big papers and media outlets immediately chased the YouTube story when it was suggested to them that this was where the story should go. As the links above discuss, they made major reporting errors, showed an appalling lack of concern about First Amendment protections, and fed into a frenzy in precisely the opposite direction of where the frenzy should have focused. It's also worth noting, however, that Godbeat reporters actually covered the YouTube angle well (except for the part, perhaps, about covering it at the expense of the real story).

And perhaps because of their role in messing up this story (and, I assume, because of their dislike of the fact that some people are focused on this story more for political gain than more honorable reasons), we're seeing a bit of reticence in holding people to account or fully understanding the implications of the attack and the U.S. government's response to same.

It's great that libertarian and conservative outlets are thinking about anti-blasphemy enforcement and religious freedom and freedom of expression. But these are items of universal interest and since Godbeat reporters did better on this story last September than their colleagues on the political beat, perhaps we'll see some good work in the future.

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