Misinformer Of The Year: CBS News

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

"It is, to put it mildly, surprising that 60 Minutes did not check this discrepancy before broadcast" -- former Meet The Press host Marvin Kalb.

Even now, nearly two months after it aired, almost nothing about CBS News' "exclusive" (and infamous) 60 Minutes report on Benghazi makes sense. From conception, to execution, to the network's stubborn claims that the report met its high standards even as it publicly dissolved, the story on the Benghazi terror attack of 2012 quickly became a case study in how not to practice journalism on the national stage. And in how dangerous it is to lose sight of fair play and common sense when wielding the power and prestige of the country's most-watched news program.

The 60 Minutes Benghazi hoax had it all: a flimsy political premise featuring previously debunked myths, a correspondent with an established agenda, a blinding corporate conflict of interest, and an untrustworthy "witness" who apparently fabricated his story and had once reportedly asked a journalist to pay him for his information. (The fact that the CBS Benghazi report was widely hyped by an array of chronically inaccurate conservative media outlets represented another obvious red flag.)

When the Benghazi hoax first began to reveal itself, a chorus of veteran journalists agreed that CBS had a pressing problem on its hands and that executives needed to address the mounting crisis. Instead CBS for days, led by 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan and news chairman Jeff Fager, defended the truly indefensible, until that became unfeasible.

The sad part is the Benghazi hoax wasn't an isolated incident this year at CBS. The colossal blunder certainly created the most controversy. But the type of ethical short cuts used in that report were visible elsewhere on the network. CBS News reports on health care reform, disability fraud, and climate change in 2013 also displayed a disturbing willingness to peddle misinformation under the guise of network news.

Fittingly, the year ended with 60 Minutes once again receiving a barrage of criticism for another one-sided report, this one about the National Security Agency's surveillance practices, causing media observers from Politico to National Review to ask what's the matter with a program once considered to be the gold standard for network news magaizine programs.

Collectively, and especially because of the Benghazi hoax, these reports earned CBS News the distinction of being named Media Matters' Misinformer of the Year for 2013. This is only the second time in nine years that a mainstream news organization has received that title. The honor has typically been awarded to an individual right-wing media figure from whom we'd expect professional misinformation, such as Glenn Beck in 2009 and Rush Limbaugh in 2012.

From a news organization with a storied past, we expect better.

The Benghazi Hoax  

The flawed 60 Minutes report represented a willing and eager decision by CBS to get mired in the Benghazi mud. CBS thought it could keep its reputation clean while cashing in on the built-in buzz it knew the right-wing noise machine would produce for the report.

But that's a dangerous game given that there's nothing sane or rational about the right-wing's Benghazi fantasy and the claims it's a "Watergate"-like scandal that implicates both President Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The far-right's Benghazi campaign has been an endless stream of hollow allegations and smears. (i.e. "The cancer on the Presidency is lying exposed --  grisly and repulsive.") Why would a trusted brand like CBS try to wallow in that kind of conspiratorial nonsense?

In reality, Lara Logan's report produced little new reporting of interest or significance. And much of what it did cast as new turned out to be deeply flawed. The October 27 broadcast seemed designed to whip up angry emotions from conservatives, rather than illuminate the facts.  

The Benghazi fact sheet will likely haunt the network for years:

On October 27, 60 Minutes featured Dylan Davies, a British security contractor who claimed to be a "witness" of the September 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities; a witness who claimed that during the attack he heroically scaled a wall of the U.S. compound and knocked out a terrorist with his rifle butt. The action-packed tale Davies told was the same one he spelled out in a book published by CBS subsidiary, which meant the 60 Minutes report was helping to juice sales for a CBS-affiliated book. (60 Minutes did not inform their readeres of that conflict of interest.)

The story Davies told CBS though, was wildly different than the subdued account he gave his work superiors, according to an incident report that was obtained by The Washington Post on October 31. Davies had told his security contractor employer that he "could not get anywhere near" the compound the night of the attack.

With his story under fire, Davies responded that he lied to his employer because he didn't want his boss to know he'd disobeyed strict orders that night to stay away from the Benghazi compound. While acknowledging that deceit, Davies claimed he told the truth on 60 Minutes and told the truth in his book, and said he would be vindicated by the FBI's report on what he told agents shortly after the attack. 

Then the Times reported that the FBI report actually showed that Davis also told agents he failed to make it to the U.S. compound on the night of the attack, and therefore did not engage in a night's worth of heroic deeds.

In the days that followed the original airing of the troubled Benghazi report, CBS did nothing to re-report or fact-check the story after holes began to appear. Other journalists, including those from the Washington Post and the New York Times, took on that burden. Basically, CBS waited for outside journalists to vet its Benghazi story after it aired. And only after CBS' competitors uncovered glaring inconsistencies did the network's news division admit mistakes were made. But the admissions came slowly and haltingly.

As it stonewalled, CBS couldn't avoid the fact that in 2004 when 60 Minutes II was caught in a crossfire of conservative outrage after airing a disputed report about President Bush's Vietnam War record, the network appointed a former Republican attorney general, Richard Thornburgh, to thoroughly investigate what went wrong. The review panel, created to "protect the integrity of CBS News," was given "full access and complete cooperation from CBS News and CBS, as well as all of the resources necessary to complete the task." Those resources included reporters' notes, e-mails, and draft scripts. After interviewing 66 people over three months, the panel issued an-often scathing 234-page report.

By contrast, no outside panel was appointed to determine how the flawed Benghazi report was put together and who was to blame for allowing it to air; the network instead commissioned a limited internal review by CBS News executive Al Ortiz. And instead of a 234-page report, CBS issued an 11-paragraph summary of Ortiz's findings. It seemed clear that CBS executives had no interests in opening up 60 Minutes to an independent review; one that would truly probe and ask the hard questions. (Was that because CBS News chairman Fager, Ortiz's boss, is also the executive producer of 60 Minutes?)

It was, as one journalism association put it, "a case study in how not to correct an inaccurate report in the digital age."

To date, nobody at CBS has lost their jobs because of the Benghazi hoax. Logan and her producer Max McClellan were asked to take a "leave of absence" following the internal review (those leaves may end as early as January), but CBS has not said whether the two are being paid during their forced hiatus. 

Quite simply, how is it possible to spend a year reporting out a story only to have almost none of it stand up to the slightest scrutiny? The magnitude of the malfeasance was baffling, demonstrating that the network failed to follow even rudimentary rules of journalism in preparing the report.

In the end, CBS's internal "review" of the debacle did little to address the troubling, central questions about how the errors were made and who was to blame. That, in turn, only led to further speculation about motives. Journalism that sloppy and misleading doesn't happen by accident. Not at the elite level of 60 Minutes.

It took the CBS team nearly two weeks to concede what critics had pointed out as the report's deep flaws. The price CBS paid? Its prized Benghazi report turned the network's news team into a national punch line. (See The Colbert Report, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and Saturday Night Live.)

Darrell Issa's Partial Transcripts

The night the 60 Minutes Benghazi hoax aired, CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson used her Twitter account to relentlessly hype the program. Tweeting a dozen times that night about Logan's Benghazi piece, Attkisson urged her followers to tune in and watch.

A professional Benghazi aficionado and the declared darling of the right-wing media, Attkisson's cheerleading wasn't a surprise. Nor was it surprising that when the 60 Minutes report completely imploded, Attkisson never acknowledged the network's blunder via Twitter. She simply moved on to her own Obama gotcha campaign that featured a journalism lapse that nearly matched Logan's.

On November 11, Attkisson aired an exclusive report based on reviewing what she acknowledged were selectively leaked partial transcripts. Those transcripts likely came by the auspices of Republican anti-Obama crusader, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), whose utterly fruitless investigations of the White House as chairman of the House Oversight Committee have become legendary. Issa himself has become known as being legendarily untrustworthy, particularly in his dealings with the press. But that didn't stop Attkisson from simply regurgitating Issa's hit piece.

In her report, Attkisson, who's been identified by some of her own CBS colleagues as an open GOP partisan, suggested Healthcare.gov's chief project manager Henry Chao in September was completely unaware of "limitless" security concerns related to the government's troubled site; concerns that could lead to identify theft.

That was Attkisson's tale as told by the House Oversight Chairman, and the partial transcripts he allowed Attkisson to see. The entire transcript story? In his testimony, Chao was asked about security concerns that had nothing to do with the October 1 rollout of Obamacare, and instead were related to parts of Healthcare.gov that won't be active until 2014.

That's just atrocious journalism. As MSNBC's Steve Benen noted, the Attkisson report left out "pretty much every relevant detail that points in a more accurate direction." But it did successfully create more panic about the Obamacare launch. The fact that Attkisson's producers allowed her to air that kind of obviously flawed and flimsy report (Attkisson had no idea what the full transcripts revealed but she leveled a bogus charge anyway), says a lot about the gotcha culture inside CBS today.

It also reveals a lot that a reporter like Attkisson, who has such a rich history of being wrong on very important stories, is still a top reporter at CBS.

Bogus Health Care Reporting

CBS News' overly sensationalistic coverage of the Obamacare rollout also revealed troubles at the network; troubles exemplified by the work of reporter Jan Crawford who helped spread the media fear that Obamacare suddenly meant millions of Americans were losing their insurance coverage. (Having an existing insurance plan canceled and invited to join another, often less expensive plan, is not the same as losing your insurance.)

On October 28, in one of the first national Obamacare "horror stories," Crawford profiled a distraught Florida woman who said her insurance premium was going to skyrocket from $54 a month to nearly $600. (She was quickly invited onto Fox News to tell her tale.)  But CBS's Crawford managed to leave out all kinds of crucial information about the woman's old plan and what the likely new costs for her would really be.

When outsiders re-reported Crawford's completely misleading tale, they discovered the Florida woman was actually eligible for health insurance plans through the Obamacare exchanges that would increase her premiums modestly to $200, and that because of Obamacare she'd enroll in a much better, much more comprehensive, health insurance plan. When a reporter explained to the women what her options would be, she said she would "jump at" the opportunity to pay more a month for those superior coverage options, calling it "a blessing in disguise."

So much for that "horror story."

Crawford wasn't done with the misinformation, though. On October 16, she announced that CBS couldn't "find anyone who's enrolled" in the Affordable Care Act since the exchanges had gone online 16 days earlier. In more than two weeks, nobody had signed up for Obamacare, according to Crawford's preposterous claim. Three minutes of Googling and Crawford could have found countless examples of successful enrollees at the time, all the them detailed in press clippings from other media outlets.

The "Ghastly" Social Security Disability Report

And then there was the October 6 scare report 60 Minutes aired that alleged widespread fraud within the Social Security disability program. (i.e. "A secret welfare system.") Told from the perspective of another crusading Republican lawmaker, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Media Matters noted at the time the CBS report relied almost entirely on anecdotal evidence to dishonestly portray the social welfare program as wasteful, despite the fact that award rates fell during the recession and that fraud represents approximately one percent of the program.

After watching the lopsided report, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik denounced CBS correspondent Steve Kroft's "rank ignorance about the disability program" and the "ghastly" piece Kroft helped produce.

Hiltzik wasn't alone. The Nation attacked the 60 Minutes report as a "hatchet job." Economist Dean Baker lamented that, "Perhaps the most remarkable part of this story is that the 60 Minutes crew seem to think they are being tough for going after people on disability." And disability advocates, who had preemptively reached out to CBS in hopes that 60 Minutes would air a balanced report, denounced the "sensational" account as a "disservice" to people with disabilities.

Taken together, these troubling CBS reports, centered around the shocking Benghazi hoax, paint a disturbing portrait of one of Americans' most famous news teams, and one that seems overly eager to spread Republican misinformation while doing deep damage to its own brand.

Show/Publication
60 Minutes, CBS News
Stories/Interests
Benghazi
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