Four Americans died in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Yesterday’s “final” 800-page report about it from the U.S. House Select Committee is biased. So are the response from House Democrats, the coverage from Fox News, the coverage from CNN, and every other article. Why? Because all stories are inherently biased. It’s the nature of the form.
Here’s a fair warning from me to you: if you’re reading this because you want me to decry the bias of news channels and online news sources, you’ll be disappointed. This is the world we live in and everyone knows it. Railing against Fox News or MSNBC does nothing but excite the people who agree with you and anger the ones who don’t. I’m interested in light, not heat, so I’m seeking a deeper truth.
You don’t need to distort facts to create bias
What happened in Libya and around the world on the day of the attack? A man had breakfast. People rioted. An antiterrorist team in Spain failed to leave the runway for three hours. Millions of other events happened. Which ones are significant? Depends on the story you tell.
Committee report from House Republicans (Representative Mike Pompeo):
We expect our government to make every effort to save the lives of Americans who serve in harm’s way. That did not happen in Benghazi. Politics were put ahead of the lives of Americans, and while the administration had made excuses and blamed the challenges posed by time and distance, the truth is that they did not try.”
The State Department’s security measures in Benghazi were woefully inadequate as a result of decisions made by officials in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, but Secretary Clinton never personally denied any requests for additional security in Benghazi.
House Benghazi Report Finds No New Evidence of Wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton
Ending one of the longest, costliest and most bitterly partisan congressional investigations in history, the House Select Committee on Benghazi issued its final report on Tuesday, finding no new evidence of culpability or wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton in the 2012 attacks in Libya that left four Americans dead.
GOP-Written House Benghazi Report Faults Obama Administration
The House Select Committee on Benghazi faulted multiple agencies for lacking an overall Libya strategy, and it characterized the U.S. government as slow and disorganized in responding to the attacks on two diplomatic and intelligence facilities once they were under way.
House Benghazi report slams administration response to attacks
A damning report authored by the Republican-led House committee probing the Benghazi terror attacks faulted the Obama administration for a range of missteps before, during and after the fatal 2012 attacks – saying top administration officials huddled to craft their public response while military assets waited hours to deploy to Libya.
House Republicans Spent Millions Of Dollars On Benghazi Committee To Exonerate Clinton
After spending more than two years and $7 million, the House Select Committee on Benghazi released a report Tuesday that found — like eight investigations before it — no evidence of wrongdoing by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or other members of the Obama administration.
Online filtering exaggerates bias
Online news tools have trapped in a vicious cycle of bias. Facebook highlights news that matches your own perspectives. This fuels biased reporting, because that’s what’s going to show up in your feed. An article yesterday in Wired nailed it.
Benghazi Report Shows the Internet Is Killing Objectivity
If you were to read the way the left wing and right wing media were covering the newly released report on the attacks in Benghazi today, you could be forgiven for thinking they were referring to two entirely different documents. . . .
It is the beauty and the tragedy of the Internet age. As it becomes easier for anyone to build their own audience, it becomes harder for those audience members to separate fact from fiction from the gray area in between. As media consumers, we now have the freedom to self-select the truth that most closely resembles our existing beliefs . . .
Narrative itself is the root of the problem
If you put serious effort into writing anything intended to be factual, you must do the following:
- Do research to find and verify facts, quotes, and statistics.
- Determine what story the facts are telling.
- Select the facts, quotes, and statistics that fit the story.
- Arrange these elements into a compelling story.
- Discard the rest.
We do this because narrative is central to how we communicate. Narratives have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They connect one event to another. They have a conclusion. Unlike raw collections of facts, they stick with people. This is why everything effective that we write is in the form of a story.
But all stories leave things out. Discarding elements and keeping others is central to storytelling.
All storytelling distorts. It’s inevitable.
You ought to know enough to mistrust biased sources like Breitbart, which decide on the story first and choose the facts to fit. But all writers distort, regardless of their intentions, because they leave things out based on their judgment.
As a reader, you must always seek multiple storytellers. News sources save you time by collecting facts and presenting them in a digestible way. But if you don’t want distortion, you should seek a variety of sources, including those with perspectives you disagree with.
How to compensate for narrative bias
What should you do about this as a writer?
You can’t write without leaving things out. And you must write in the form of a narrative, or no one will be able to comprehend or assimilate what you are writing. Writing without story would be like writing without paragraphs or punctuation — completely ineffective.
The traditional way to create “balance” is to quote people who disagree with a conclusion. This is perfunctory and ineffective. The balance it creates is false, especially when the people you quote are wrong on the facts.
Instead, ask yourself, what stories are the facts telling me? You may see multiple, contradictory narratives.
Don’t just pick one. Try to find the higher truth that subsumes them all. And try to reveal that higher truth.
Follow up. Tell the alternate stories as well in future pieces.
Your job as an unbiased writer is not to skew the reader’s perspective to match your own. It is to tell the stories — plural — that reveal what is actually going on.
So don’t stop with one story. Because the truth is always more complicated than that.
Thanks to Ben Kunz and Sam Mallikarjunan for suggesting this analysis.
Note: I will delete comments promoting one narrative of Benghazi over others. This is about how stories distort truth — not about which truth you believe in. You’re not going to convince anybody, so don’t even try.