60 Minutes' discredited Benghazi report, which relied largely on claims former security contractor Dylan Davies made in his since-retracted book, is a reminder that authors used as sources and news subjects need to be vetted, according to experienced broadcast news producers.
Several television and radio veterans who book authors for their shows or base news reports around them stressed the need to ensure subjects are credible and to conduct fact-checking and reviews of their work that goes beyond reading the publisher's press releases.
"Every time that there's some sort of scandal, the rules change and there's much more vigilance," Lynn Keller, a segment producer for NBC's Dateline, said about the 60 Minutes fallout. "I think we learn from others mistakes. I'm a big believer in a lot of oversight because one lack of oversight is too many."
Lauren Bright Pacheco, a freelance producer who has worked on several syndicated and cable shows, agreed.
"You have a series of steps where you are taking publicists' word for something, who is taking the publishers' word for something and there is not a lot of time to go back and thoroughly vet everything," she warned about relying on authors. "So much of journalism really does depend upon ethics, which are not too overly in play anymore. People will do whatever they can to tell their version of truth, including lie."
The concerns follow the recent controversy over an October 60 Minutes report that featured Davies' claims about witnessing the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Davies was also promoting his book, The Embassy House, which was published by a CBS division and promoted during the segment without acknowledgement of that financial tie.
After the story ran, CBS received harsh criticism following the revelation that Davies had previously told his employer and the FBI that he had not witnessed the attack. The multimedia company subsequently retracted both the segment and Davies' book, and CBS News is currently conducting an internal "journalistic review" of the segment.
"When we do book interviews, we often find out what others are saying about that author and that book; that is standard practice," stressed Steve Scully, C-SPAN political editor and senior executive producer. "Anytime you do an interview with anyone, you've got to do your homework."
Danny Miller, co-executive producer of Fresh Air with Terry Gross on National Public Radio, said he probably would not have booked Davies on his show because he avoids books that have "self-serving motives."
"It would have been something we would have been wary of or very careful about given that it falls into the category of something we could not independently check and hadn't gone through the vetting of other media sources," Miller said, later adding, "We're very wary of anything that comes out that could be biased or self-serving, anybody who may be talking about an issue where they have self-serving motives. We tend to go to journalists to discuss issues, unless we go to something that is looking for a multiple perspective."
"When it comes to the non-fiction books we do," Miller explained, "we tend to stay away from books that are based on shocking revelations or something we cannot independently fact-check, the central contention of the book and we tend to go to journalists who are really established and have a reputation for independent reporting. The credentials are very important to us, especially when you get to controversial issues."
CBS News' apparent decision to have one of its own producers conduct an internal "journalistic review" of the network's discredited 60 Minutes Benghazi report -- and effectively investigate the decisions of his boss -- is drawing harsh criticism from newsroom veterans and media experts.
The critiques follow a damaging week for the network as it received constant hits for its airing of a report that featured a former British security consultant who apparently lied about witnessing the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, a lackluster apology aimed at ending the scandal, and an unwillingness to explain how or whether it plans to investigate itself and reveal how it blundered so badly.
The latest word came today via Politico's Dylan Byers, who reported that he had learned, in spite of the efforts of the network, that Al Ortiz, a CBS News executive producer for special events, would be conducting what CBS has termed an ongoing "journalistic review" of the segment. Ortiz reports to CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, who is also the executive producer of 60 Minutes. Ortiz's conflict of interest, Byers noted, is especially relevant as Fager's dual role has been cited as a factor that may have contributed to the flawed report.
"In a world where perception matters, to have someone investigate their supervisor is a built-in conflict of interest," said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a former CNN correspondent. "I know Al and I am sure he will do a fine job. But as a practical matter, if you want to do a no-holds-bar complete investigation, this is not it."
Sesno, who spoke as he boarded a plane back to Washington Friday to guest host Reliable Sources on CNN this Sunday, said this would be a hot topic on the show.
"They shouldn't call it an investigation," he added. "If this is what they do, then Al is writing a memo. I'm not sure it is the word investigation in the way the outside world would define that. When you do these things, you have to do them all the way."
And Sesno was not alone. Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman was among others who said the investigation lacks credibility before it begins.
"There's no way that Al Ortiz can do an investigation that anyone outside CBS News, and maybe inside, will find credible at this point," said Shepard. "The network needs to hire a panel of outside independent journalists and let them loose inside 60 Minutes to find out step by step what happened. And be totally transparent. It's the only way for 60 Minutes to regain its once-stellar reputation. This is so why news organizations still need ombudsmen."
Former NBC News president Lawrence Grossman is the latest veteran news chief to call on 60 Minutes to better explain why it allowed a story on the 2012 Benghazi attack that was based on the lies of a now discredited source to air.
Grossman, who headed NBC News from 1984 to 1988 and also served as PBS CEO for many years, said once CBS News discovered former British security contractor Dylan Davies had lied about being at the attack site they should have "jumped in with both feet, and hands and everything else."
The October 27 segment featured Davies' heroic eyewitness account of the attacks, the same story he told in a book published by a CBS division. The network aired the story despite knowing that Davies had previously told his employer that he had never made it to the U.S. diplomatic compound on the night it was attacked. CBS finally retracted the story and apologized after learning that Davies had told the FBI the same story he had told his boss, but has not fully detailed how such a flawed story was broadcast.
Although 60 Minutes just this week revealed it was conducting an "journalistic review" of the story, Grossman stressed that the network should have been forthcoming sooner and should be providing more details about what the review will entail.
"I think CBS has an obligation now that the whole thing has been aired to let people know what they are doing to investigate exactly what happened," Grossman said in a November 14 phone interview. "How it came about and to be as specific and clear in what's going on with their examination of the matter."
Grossman added, "I think it's a big mistake for news divisions to be reluctant to apologize because the integrity of what they do is so important."
Grossman joins former ABC News President David Westin who told Huffington Post this week that "CBS made some big mistakes" and that the network should have acknowledged in their report that Davies had given a contradictory account to his employer.
A third former top network news executive, who requested anonymity, also weighed in, telling Media Matters, "The entire episode is worthy of more scrutiny and their apology was too thin. We expect better from a place like 60 Minutes."
While 60 Minutes is conducting some kind of "journalistic review" of its discredited story about the Benghazi attack, publishers of a related book that has been removed from stores have been largely mum about how they published an apparent fabrication.
Threshold Books published The Embassy House by "Sgt. Morgan Jones" and then retracted the book after it became clear that the author -- a British former security contractor whose real name is Dylan Davies -- had apparently lied about being at the scene of the September 2012 assault.
Some critics have questioned how Threshold could have published such a story in the first place without verifying it. But according to publishing veterans, there are few safeguards to prevent such a failure in an industry that provides only minimal review and fact-checking. Without in-house fact-checkers at most publishing houses, authors themselves typically bear the sole responsibility for the accuracy of their work.
"As a general course of business, publishers do not conduct a thorough fact-check on most of their books," said Sloan Harris, a literary agent at ICM Talent who represents New Yorker veterans Jane Mayer and Ken Auletta. "A number of our prominent authors will, in fact, employ an outside fact-checker at their own expense."
But such fact-checking arrangements are far from mandatory or routine.
Harris explained, "publishers are already under huge market pressures and seem to be overworked every year, adding another function to their obligation is not a likely outcome at this point."
Threshold, a conservative imprint of the CBS publishing division Simon & Schuster, announced last week that the Davies book would no longer be for sale following the revelation that the author had told a dramatically different story to the FBI and his employer than he provided in the book. Davies' co-author Damien Lewis reportedly issued a statement saying:
If there are inconsistencies in the events as told in The Embassy House and Mr. Davies's previous renderings of the story, Mr. Davies needs to answer those inconsistencies. Those who were injured on the night of Benghazi 9/11 deserve to know the truth, as do the families of those who lost their lives.
But so far, that truth has yet to be provided, and Threshold does not seem in a hurry to explain it. The publisher has not responded to requests for comment or an explanation about how it vetted Davies, if the book was fact-checked, or what is being done to investigate how a book largely based on lies of its author could be approved.
Editors and agents who spoke with Media Matters agree that non-fiction book authors have the leeway to write what they wish without editors seeking to verify their claims. In the case of authors like Davies, who apparently choose to fabricate their stories, the lack of accountability can be devastating to publishers, journalists, and readers.
"It's true that it is up to the author a lot of the time," said Barry Harbaugh, a veteran editor at Harper Collins. Citing a biography of the cyclist Lance Armstrong he is editing, Harbaugh noted, "We made sure the author hired a fact-checker."
A former magazine fact-checker, Harbaugh recalled his surprise when he first arrived at the publishing house and discovered "there is not a full-time fact-checker here in the way that there is at most big magazines."
For years, when major news outlets had to admit factual errors or other major mistakes, they drew the most respect and admiration when they opened up with full disclosure and in-depth investigations of what went wrong and why.
That is what makes this weekend's 60 Minutes apology so disappointing.
60 Minutes has always been the gold standard, not only for news magazines but for quality journalism. Even nine years ago, when it conducted an internal review of the 60 Minutes II report on George W. Bush's Air National Guard service, it appointed an outside panel to look at the facts and, rightly or wrongly, fired four staffers. It also helped lead to the eventual departure of legendary anchor Dan Rather.
Fast forward to today, and we find 60 Minutes' October 27 story on Benghazi has been retracted, given that Dylan Davies, the key source witness, apparently lied about his actions the night of the September 2012 terror attacks. But CBS stonewalled critics for days, long after serious questions about Davies' credibility had arisen.
Then the 90-second apology Sunday night by correspondent Lara Logan left a lot of unanswered questions about how the mistake occurred and what, if anything, was going to be reviewed further at CBS News.
All day Monday, criticism mounted from all corners of the media world, with observers saying the correction did not do enough to explain what happened or provide hope that further understanding would be given.
This is a stark contrast from some of the most well-known corrections and reviews of journalism disasters dating back decades. In most cases, such open-book approaches to admitting mistakes and explaining have helped news outlets regain credibility and draw in reader trust.
Among them is the infamous 1980 Washington Post story, Jimmy's World, the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of an eight-year-old boy who was a heroin addict. After it was revealed reporter Janet Cooke had fabricated the piece, the Post returned her Pulitzer, fired Cooke and published a lengthy account of what went wrong by then-Ombudsman Bill Green.
In addition, Executive Editor Ben Bradlee offered to resign. But as the explanation drew acceptance, he remained on the job for another 10 years. Had the Post not been so open and willing to admit its mistake, and explain how it happened, perhaps Bradlee is not allowed to remain.
Longtime journalists and news ethicists who spoke with Media Matters described CBS correspondent Lara Logan's limited correction as "lacking" and "flimsy."
"I was really surprised by how it wasn't just that it was flimsy and lacked any kind of substance, but in its way it was kind of high-handed," said David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun TV critic. "It certainly wasn't contrite."
Logan's brief appearance at the end of the November 10 broadcast explained that Dylan Davies, the former security contractor who appeared as a supposed Benghazi "eyewitness" during the October 27 segment, had "misled" the network about his actions the night of the Benghazi attacks.
But Logan's November 10 apology didn't offer additional information about why 60 Minutes trusted Davies' accounts, why they did not review his report to the FBI, or whether any further internal investigation will take place.
Logan had previously appeared on CBS's This Morning on November 8 to apologize to viewers and offer an incomplete explanation for how the Davies story had made it to air.
Though former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard praised Logan's This Morning appearance, she added that "last night's brief mea culpa was severely lacking." Shepard continued, "It needed an explanation of why the mistake occurred in the first place. It needed more on their initial contact with Davies. Did the conservative CBS Corp. imprint, which was publishing Davies memoir, suggest the story?
"What was disappointing is that 60 Minutes, heralded for investigative reporting, didn't apply its chops to telling the audience why this happened."
Michael Getler, former Washington Post ombudsman and current PBS ombudsman, offered similar views.
"I watched 60 Minutes last night and felt the apology fell way short of what was needed," Getler said via email. "60 Minutes should have done a segment on what went wrong, not just a brief apology. 60 Minutes is the gold standard for credible investigative reporting on hot-button issues on network television, where precious little of that is done elsewhere. So it is important to journalism and to the public, not just to CBS, that it gets things right."
Kelly McBride, ethics instructor at The Poynter Institute, agreed with critics who are pointing out the shortcomings of 60 Minutes' apology.
"I think the criticism is spot on and I don't think people are going to let this go until CBS explains the answer to two very specifics questions," she said in an interview. "The first is, what did they do to vet Dylan Davies? And where did the process breakdown?"
She later added, "It is entirely possible that someone with an agenda was trying to influence the story. Who was inappropriately influencing that story? The big question to 60 Minutes is 'do you think that [correction] will do? I don't think it will."
One Republican lawmaker who cited the recent 60 Minutes Benghazi story as a reason to appoint a select committee on the 2012 attack has no regrets about championing a report that has since been retracted.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) had previously said the 60 Minutes story, including information provided by the now-discredited "witness" Dylan Davies, demonstrated the need for a select committee to be appointed to investigate Benghazi. His press secretary, Jill Shatzen, said the CBS report's dissolution had not changed his position.
"He definitely still wants a select committee," she told Media Matters just hours after 60 Minutes had acknowledged the story was wrong and apologized. "Our position on Benghazi hasn't changed. What happened with the 60 Minutes piece is on CBS and 60 Minutes." She said Wolf had been urging a select committee "long before the 60 Minutes piece came out anyway. There are several things that came out in the media pointing to the need for a select committee."
Asked if he regretted citing the 60 Minutes story as a reason for the select committee to be formed, Shatzen said, "He can't really regret that. Their error is on them. He would focus on the other news reports that came out. Even other parts of the 60 Minutes piece, not just that one guy."
CBS pulled the October 27 report following the revelation that the "witness" to the attack featured in the piece had previously said he never reached the compound while the attack was underway.
The offices of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Rep, Darrell Issa (R-CA), Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA.), and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), all of whom previously highlighted the report, did not respond to requests for comment.
Former 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes, who was fired for her role in a controversial 2004 story about President Bush's service in the Air National Guard, accused CBS News of pandering to a right-wing audience with her former program's recent Benghazi report, for which the network has been criticized and forced to retract.
"My concern is that the story was done very pointedly to appeal to a more conservative audience's beliefs about what happened at Benghazi," Mapes said by telephone from her Texas home. "They appear to have done that story to appeal specifically to a politically conservative audience that is obsessed with Benghazi and believes that Benghazi was much more than a tragedy."
At issue is the report from correspondent Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan, which spotlighted former defense contract worker Dylan Davies. In the report, and Davies' new book, he claims he witnessed the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility. The 60 Minutes report was championed by Republican politicians and the right-wing media.
But since the story aired, other media outlets have revealed that Davies had told his employer and the FBI that he never made it to the compound on the night of the assault that killed four Americans.
Given that new information, CBS has launched an investigation into the story, while Logan appeared on CBS This Morning today and admitted the reporting was wrong and a mistake. She said 60 Minutes would be correcting the record on Sunday's broadcast.
Mapes was among several staffers, including former anchorman Dan Rather, who lost their jobs when documents used in the 2004 story could not be authenticated. Rather could not be reached for comment.
Mapes chronicled her story in the 2005 book, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and the Privilege of Power (St. Martin's Press).
"On a human level, I feel really badly for the people who worked on that report. I have walked the halls when something like this happens," Mapes recalled in her interview with Media Matters. "Part of being human is making mistakes and being forgiven for it."
Still, Mapes stressed that "what is concerning to me is the reason they went after that story in the first place. ... It so concerns me that it appears that story was done to appeal to a conservative element in the audience; that's not the way you should choose your stories."
"Occasions like this can be incredibly instructive," Mapes concludes, but "it is important to be careful about what lessons you draw."
One of the investigators hired by CBS News to review its problematic 2004 report on George W. Bush's Air National Guard service, which led to the ouster of Dan Rather and other staffers, said the lessons of that review -- to get the facts quickly and disclose them -- should not be forgotten as the network's recent Benghazi story comes under scrutiny.
Louis Boccardi, former Associated Press CEO and president, was part of the two-person team that investigated a 60 Minutes II story after questions were raised about the authenticity of some of the documents cited in the report.
Asked about the current problems with the recent Benghazi report CBS' 60 Minutes ran on the September 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya -- which aired October 27 and has been plagued by the recent revelation that its key source witness told contradictory tales about the attack -- Boccardi brought up the "lessons" learned in his previous review.
"I think one of the lessons of the Rather situation was that things get worse if you don't get in quickly and figure out what happened," Boccardi said in an interview. "We said that in the report ... that one of the lessons of CBS 60 Minutes II was to get quickly at the bottom of this, get the facts -- and get them quickly -- and put 'em out."
The October 27 report has come under fire from Media Matters and a host of journalism veterans after the Washington Post revealed that Dylan Davies, the security contractor presented by CBS News as a witness to the attacks, had previously filed a report with his security contractor employer saying that he "could not get anywhere near" the compound the night of the attack. 60 Minutes has told the Post it stands by the story.
On November 2, The Daily Beast published an interview with Davies in which he claimed he lied to his employer with his statement that he was not near the Benghazi attack site.
Boccardi declined to comment specifically on the details of the Benghazi report or the issues of concern. But he stressed that finding the facts and disclosing them is a key element in any news story that comes under question, something he says was important in the previous 60 Minutes review he conducted.
"People who know whether it ought to be reviewed and how it ought to be reviewed are the people inside CBS, they know what they're dealing with," Boccardi said. "One of the issues we dealt with last time was in some places in CBS they're insisting that [the story] was right and in other places they weren't sure. Of course as time went on, it got worse. I don't know what they ought to do now. I think getting to the bottom quickly is the right thing for a news company, a news organization to do."
Journalism veterans and media ethicists are demanding answers from CBS News in light of the revelation that the key "witness" in 60 Minutes' recent report on the September 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, had previously said he was not at the diplomatic compound on the night of the attack.
"I don't see any way that 60 Minutes would not need to offer an explanation," said Alex S. Jones, former media writer for The New York Times and current director of the Shorenstein Center on The Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "This definitely needs explaining."
The 60 Minutes segment, which aired October 27, includes a lengthy interview with a man identified by the pseudonym "Morgan Jones," who told the magazine show he was "a security officer who witnessed the attack."
The piece featured "Jones" and his seemingly heroic efforts "scaling" the compound's 12 foot wall, disabling a terrorist "with the butt end of a rifle" and ultimately seeing the lifeless body of Ambassador Chris Stevens in the hospital.
But The Washington Post revealed Thursday that "Jones," identified as defense contractor Dylan Davies, told his employer in a written report just days after the attack that he was far from the area at the time. According to the Post, Davies wrote that "he spent most of that night at his Benghazi beach-side villa. Although he attempted to get to the compound, he wrote in the report, 'we could not get anywhere near . . . as roadblocks had been set up.'" He also wrote that he had heard of Stevens' death from a colleague.
That revelation drew concern and complaints from those who monitor media ethics and have worked in newsrooms for decades. Several called for a correction or at least further explanation.
Among them is Kevin Z. Smith, chair of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists and deputy director of the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University, who called for CBS to "internally review its reporting on this story given the latest information that has surfaced. They need to pursue this new information and story angle with the same fairness and intensity that they did in the original reporting."
In a letter to CBS News' president and chairman, Media Matters founder David Brock called for such a review, modeled on the independent investigation the network conducted after questions were raised about a report on President George W. Bush's Air National Guard service.
Smith said two questions arise from the situation. "First, did Lara Logan and her staff test the accuracy of the information that was given them and exercise care to avoid error?" he asked in an email. "Second, if they are wrong in their reporting, they should show accountability and make needed corrections to their reportage to reflect any mistakes made. That is a key component to establishing and maintaining trust and credibility with the public."