I feel a little bad about lowering the boom on Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who I tried to help through his feelings of confusion and paranoia as the Obama narrative about the Bergdahl prisoner swap disintegrated around him. I thought at the time that his grip on reality seemed a bit shaky, but one could make allowances for anyone trying to keep up with the White House’s ever-shifting narrative. Defending that would drive anyone around the bend.
But the new scandal erupting around Milbank’s attempt to slander the Heritage Foundation by falsely reporting an exchange that occurred with a young Muslim student at a Benghazi panel is serious. The Washington Post has a serious Dana Milbank problem on its hands. His article must be retracted, and an apology issued to the people he misrepresented. He didn’t make a minor mistake, offer a contrary opinion, or even interpret something that was said in a contentious way. He deliberately misrepresented the conversation in question as nearly the opposite of what actually occurred. And to add a little man-bites-dog twist to the story, it’s a video posted by the left-wing Media Matters that demolished Milbank’s account. (If Media Matters thought they were helping him by posting that video, they’re going to have some interesting editorial meetings over the next few days.)
First and foremost, here’s the video, which every reader is encouraged to watch in full:
And here’s how Dana Milbank portrayed the exchange, in an article entitled “Heritage’s Ugly Benghazi Panel”:
Then Saba Ahmed, an American University law student, stood in the back of the room and asked a question in a soft voice. ???We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there???s 1.8 billion followers of Islam,??? she told them. ???We have 8 million-plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don???t see them represented here.???
Panelist Brigitte Gabriel of a group called ACT! for America pounced. She said ???180 million to 300 million??? Muslims are ???dedicated to the destruction of Western civilization.??? She told Ahmed that the ???peaceful majority were irrelevant??? in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and she drew a Hitler comparison: ???Most Germans were peaceful, yet the Nazis drove the agenda and as a result, 60 million died.???
???Are you an American???? Gabriel demanded of Ahmed, after accusing her of taking ???the limelight??? and before informing her that her ???political correctness??? belongs ???in the garbage.???
???Where are the others speaking out???? Ahmed was asked. This drew an extended standing ovation from the nearly 150 people in the room, complete with cheers.
The panel???s moderator, conservative radio host Chris Plante, grinned and joined in the assault. ???Can you tell me who the head of the Muslim peace movement is???? he demanded of Ahmed.
???Yeah,??? audience members taunted, ???yeah.???
Ahmed answered quietly, as before. ???I guess it???s me right now,??? she said.
There’s a lot of other material in the article, whose thrust is that Dana Milbank thinks all questions about Obama Administration’s official story on Benghazi are illegitimate, if not insane. I wouldn’t worry about that attitude too much, because it will change one nanosecond after a Republican enters the Oval Office. It’s a matter of opinion whether some of the unresolved questions are fair or not. I’ve got no problem with Dana Milbank expressing his, or doing his level best to convince readers to share it.
But it’s not a matter of “opinion” when a writer deliberately twists words, invents quotes, and blatantly misrepresents the attitude and intent of speakers. You don’t need anything other than the actual video of the event to see that nobody “pounced” on the Muslim student or “taunted” her. Brigitte Gabriel is certainly an impassioned speaker, but she didn’t conduct some xenophobic interrogation – she politely asked if the student was an American citizen, and in fact assumed she was. When did that become an unreasonable question for the citizens of a “nation of immigrants” with lots of foreign exchange students to ask, of someone speaking with an accent and wearing somewhat exotic clothing, in the context of a question about global affairs, especially when coming from someone who is herself an immigrant?
Has the abuse of Godwin’s Law about the perils of invoking Nazi Germany in any contemporary political discussion grown to the point that one cannot even offer the Nazis as one of several examples, when warning about the ability of a brutal and determined minority to control the majority of a population? Many invocations of the Nazis are facile, to be sure… but that doesn’t mean Hitler didn’t happen, or that nothing similar to the Nazis can ever happen again, anywhere, guaranteed.
The panel was, in truth, very indulgent of Sabra Ahmed’s question, given that Gabriel was entirely correct to note that it was tangential to the subject under discussion. Before you even get to Brigitte Gabriel’s part of the video, you’ve got Frank Gaffney cheerfully agreeing with the basic premise of the question. They all take it seriously, when they could have just said “that’s not what we’re here to discuss, and it doesn’t have much to do with the Benghazi attack.” They didn’t taunt Ahmed into silence – they talked with her. She laughs when the question about “who the head of the Muslim peace movement is right now” arrives, and perhaps most crucially, the crowd applauds when she’s done.
There are more thorough debunkings of Milbank’s slander at The Federalist and Hot Air, including some examples of how other outlets unquestioningly linked to the false Washington Post account and instantly began spreading the legend of the Ugly Heritage Benghazi Panel. Even if the Washington Post has the editorial integrity to run a correction, I doubt those other outlets are going to update their stories and apologize to readers for misleading them.
Some have also pointed out that Milbank should have shared more thorough background information on Saba Ahmed, who is not a random American University law student who just happened to get a seat at the Heritage event. Erick Erickson gives a few relevant background details at RedState:
What Milbank does not tell you is that Saba Ahmed is a family friend of Mohammed Osman Mohamud, the convicted Islamic bomber who tried to blow up Portland, OR in the name of jihad.
Milbank also does not tell you Saba Ahmed has been arrested for stalking and her family claims she was diagnosed with a mental disorder. She???s also been active at Occupy rallies denouncing American war efforts. She has made opposition to the American war against terrorism a key part of what she does. And she took to Heritage to hijack a conversation on Benghazi, turning it to her issue, which had not even been a topic of conversation.
That does all seem like background a Washington Post reader ought to know, and Milbank could have discovered it with ten minutes spent on Google, but really it’s incidental to the videotaped exchange and his characterization of it. Erick also points out that he could have made it more clear that the Heritage Foundation provided facilities for the event, but did not organize it – on the contrary, Milbank’s headline was “Heritage’s Ugly Benghazi Panel.”
The bottom line is that there is no way to get from that videotape to Dana Milbank’s description of it, and there’s no way to dismiss what he wrote as an innocent mistake. He knew exactly what he was doing, and now it’s time for his editors to demonstrate that they know what they’re doing.