On September 11, 2012, some fifty masked and heavily armed Islamists attacked an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The compound’s staff was evacuated to another facility, but that facility came under mortar fire as well. By the end of the night, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, diplomat Sean Smith, two Navy Seals, and several Libyan security guards were among the dead. Who exactly orchestrated the attack remains unclear, but participants were affiliated with a hodgepodge of militia and jihadist groups. A leading role may have been played by Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militia that participated in Libya’s NATO-backed revolution in 2011 and has subsequently served as the security provider for Benghazi’s main hospital.
Coming as it did during a presidential election season, the attack was politicized almost the moment the first diplomat’s blood hit the ground. During the next two months, a flood of hysterical media coverage sought to determine what had gone wrong, who was to blame, and how this could happen to a great power like the United States. Unfortunately, much of this coverage more closely resembled political propaganda than serious journalism. The aftermath of an attack like the one in Benghazi is always chaotic and confusing, as journalists and intelligence agencies struggle to penetrate the “fog of war,” but this one was doubly so because it was also shrouded by the fog of political war. The unprecedented amount of media attention focused on this event should have served as a fog light or a foghorn; instead it was a fog machine.
The present paper focuses on one particular line of political fault-finding that portrayed the Benghazi attack as the result of American support for the Arab Spring and for the 2011 Libyan revolution. One of the most ardent proponents of this line of reasoning was conservative commentator Ben Stein, who complained that Libya’s former dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was “our friend,” and US President Barack Obama had “stabbed him in the back” by supporting the rebels. In so doing, Obama had “worked to create an ‘Arab Spring’ that has given us a fantastically more anti-American, anti-Israel, pro-al Qaeda Middle East.” Fellow conservative Dinesh D’Souza went so far as to claim that Obama’s support for the Libyan rebels was motivated by jihadist sympathies and a desire to destroy America from within. In a startling contradiction of George W. Bush’s democratization policy in Iraq, Obama’s critics now seemed to suggest that democracy only enables the violence and fanaticism of the Muslim masses—that violence and anti-Americanism are such essential features of Muslim identity that only coercive dictators can keep them in check.
These sorts of claims were greatly facilitated by sensationalized media coverage of the Benghazi attack. As Republican candidate Paul Ryan said in a televised debate with Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, “what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the [world] more chaotic [and] us less safe.” Indeed news coverage of Libya in the months following the attack tended to represent Libyans as violent and anti-American, while ignoring or minimizing evidence to the contrary. Television viewers were bombarded with footage of Ambassador Stevens’s body, the diplomatic compound’s burned-out ruins, and the violent behavior of the Libyan attackers. As if this bias toward violent images weren’t enough, news agencies also eagerly supplied dark and misleading interpretations of those images. Fox News’s Sean Hannity played a video clip of concerned Libyans checking Ambassador Stevens’s pulse, but interpreted this as an act of abuse by “looters” who found the ambassador’s body and “dragged [it] through the streets of Benghazi.” Contrary to Hannity’s account, another video shows that the Libyans didn’t know who the ambassador was, but rejoiced to find him still alive when they pulled him from the building, and subsequently carried him to a local hospital where an attempt was made to revive him. Even more inflammatory than coverage on Fox was a report in the conservative Washington Times claiming Stevens was “sodomized” before being “murdered” by his attackers. This claim turned out to be an unfounded Internet rumor, which the Times hadn’t bothered to source-check and later reluctantly withdrew. Even when not reporting outright falsehoods, many news agencies interpreted the attack as a manifestation of “Muslim Rage,” a phrase that essentialized Muslims and obscured legitimate grievances. To put it bluntly, some media outlets allowed racist assumptions about Muslims to distort their narratives of events.
 Associated Press, “Attack on US Consulate in Libya Used Military Tactics but Level of Planning Remains Unclear,” The Washington Post, September 21, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/attack-on-us-consulate-in-libya-used-military-tactics-but-level-of-planning-remains-unclear/2012/09/21/38035acc-0429-11e2-9132-f2750cd65f97_story.html.
 Eli Lake, “Ansar al-Sharia’s Role in Benghazi Attacks Still a Mystery,” Daily Beast, November 5, 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/05/ansar-al-sharia-s-role-in-benghazi-attacks-still-a-mystery.html; Suzanne Kelly, Pam Benson, and Elise Labott, “US Intel Believes Some Benghazi Attackers Tied to al Qaeda in Iraq,” CNN Security Clearance (blog), October 24, 2012, http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/24/us-intel-believes-some-benghazi-attackers-tied-to-al-qaeda-in-iraq/.
 David D. Kirkpatrick, “Election-Year Stakes Overshadow Nuances of Libya Investigation,” New York Times, October 15, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/16/world/africa/election-year-stakes-overshadow-nuances-of-benghazi-investigation.html?pagewanted=all.
 Aki Peritz, “How Critics of Obama’s Libya Response Profoundly Misunderstand Intelligence,” The Atlantic, October 2, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/10/how-critics-of-obamas-libya-response-profoundly-misunderstand-intelligence/263139/.
 See, for example, Pete Kasperowicz, “Rep. Gohmert Says Obama Helping to Build Second Ottoman Empire,” The Hill’s Floor Action Blog, September 21, 2012, http://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/house/251045-rep-gohmert-says-obama-helping-to-build-second-ottoman-empire.
 Ben Stein, “End Times,” American Spectator, September 14, 2012, http://m.spectator.org/169477/show/5ac5659b4bad54584d1e6d32fbc87df0/.
 2016: Obama’s America, directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan (Obama’s America Foundation, 2012), DVD. This is the second highest-grossing documentary of all time. Scott Paulson, “‘2016: Obama’s America’ Movie Grosses $26 Million to Date,” September 9, 2012, Examiner.com, http://www.examiner.com/article/2016-obama-s-america-movie-grosses-26-million-to-date.
 Meredith Blake, “Jon Stewart Slams Conservative Reaction to Middle East Unrest,” Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-jon-stewart-slams-conservative-reaction-to-middle-east-unrest-20120918,0,7530281.story.
 “Transcript of Vice-Presidential Debate,” FoxNews.com, October 11, 2012, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/10/11/transcript-vice-presidential-debate/.
 “Hannity: Chris Stevens’s Body Dragged through the Streets,” YouTube, uploaded September 21, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Z2Tzn5Vh4Ow.
 Arwa Damon, “Video Purportedly Shows Libyans Rushing to Aid U.S. Ambassador,” CNN, September 18, 2012, http://edition.cnn.com/2012/09/17/world/africa/libya-benghazi-video/index.html.
 Kerry Picket, “UPDATE – AFP Not behind Report of Purported Rape of Murdered U.S. Ambassador to Libya,” Washington Times, September 13, 2012, http://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/watercooler/2012/sep/13/picket-report-murdered-us-ambassador-libya-reporte/.
 Haroon Moghul, “Are Muslims Nuts?,” Religion Dispatches, September 19, 2012, http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/6401/are_muslims_nuts_/; Nael M. Shama, “Shallow Analysis Hides Real Reasons for Anti-US Rage,” Global Times, September 26, 2012, http://www.globaltimes.cn/NEWS/tabid/99/ID/735403/Shallow-analysis-hides-real-reasons-for-anti-US-rage.aspx; Lawrence Pintak, “Framing the Other: Worldview, Rhetoric, and Media Dissonance since 9/11,” in Muslims and the News Media, edited by Elizabeth Poole and John E. Richardson (New York: I.B. Taurus, 2006), 188-98.