Last week, after Republicans pivoted to Benghazi in unison, The Huffington Post's Sam Stein observed an interesting phenomenon.
When it came time to put White House press secretary Jay Carney in the hot seat, reporters for smaller outlets—whose correspondents are consigned to the back rows of the briefing room—were interested in real, unfolding dramas: Ukraine, the Affordable Care Act, the Snowden disclosures, and so on.
But when Carney moved to the big-name journalists at the front of the room, the only thing anyone seemed to care about was Benghazi.
If you were listening to a recording of the briefing it would sound something like this:
FWIW, my unofficial rundown of the topics addressed in today's briefing pic.twitter.com/zFVP22F10o— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) May 1, 2014
And that raises an interesting question, because in covering the story as a political scandal, just as Republicans want them to, the only scalps the media has really collected are their own. CBS suspended Lara Logan after "60 Minutes" aired, and later had to retract, her Benghazi feature; Sharyl Attkisson resigned from the same network, charging her former colleagues with liberal bias—reportedly because they didn't adequately promote her Benghazi coverage; and ABC's Jonathan Karl had to apologize last year after he passed along an inaccurate summation of then-unreleased White House Benghazi emails. The administration had granted members of Congress access to the emails in classified briefings, and the source who provided Karl the summary (presumably a Republican) had either taken poor notes, or intentionally misconstrued their contents, to make it appear as if the White House had thumbed the scales in the inter-agency dispute over how to address the attacks publicly.
In feeding the story, Republicans have burned reporters in very public and damaging ways. It's unclear why you'd have to manipulate evidence and promote pathological liars if the real story of Benghazi were anything like the Benghazi of the right's fever dreams. Yet none of this has deterred those same reporters from returning to it anew, as if it were a brewing scandal, every time Republicans run out of other things to talk about. It's like Benghazi Stockholm syndrome.
It suggests that something other (or more) than a zest for producing informative news is driving them. Actually, I think it's a few different pressures, none of which are new, but which in this case combine to create a perverse incentive to create a story where none exists.
There's a Drudge-like effect that drives reporters to tackle stories that they know will become widely consumed news products. Drudge himself is much less relevant than he used to be, but his influence is still detectable every time the press corps gloms onto a story that's already lighting up marquee ideological outlets. In the old days, conservatives depended on Drudge to push stories from the ideological margin into the mainstream. But as media has polarized—and as electioneering has evolved from convincing the undecided to simply rallying the faithful—a meme that mainly plays out on conservative outlets is good enough for the GOP.
There's also a related pressure to prove bona fides to conservative referee-workers, as if they might possibly be satisfied and will eventually stop making unfalsifiable charges of liberal bias.
And separately, when they feel that their subjects have withheld information from them, mainstream reporters become consumed by a trade association–like mentality, where the relevance and news value of the information become less important than making a point about transparency and the consequences of freezing out the press. Here I sympathize up to the point at which the withheld information turns out to not have any bearing on the story itself, as is apparently the case with the latest Benghazi disclosure.
Put it all together, and you get this weird phenomenon where less-prominent beat reporters have their eyes on the balls that are actually bouncing in front of them, and the press corps' celebrities are fixated on one that popped a year ago.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.