CBS News' extended refusal to specifically address questions at the heart of its controversial 60 Minutes Benghazi terror report ran counter to the counsel CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager has given in recent years about the importance of journalists admitting their mistakes and being transparent in the process.
In public speeches, Fager, who also holds the title of 60 Minutes' Executive Producer, has repeatedly insisted that for the good of a free press, journalists must acknowledge errors when they are made and must be honest with news consumers when doubts arise about their work. For the simmering Benghazi controversy however, CBS News embraced a mostly non-responsive strategy, exactly the opposite of what Fager has preached.
The problems with 60 Minutes' politically charged Benghazi report were self-evident in terms of the witness the program featured. Yet CBS News executives refused for a full week to address the central issue regarding the fact that that witness had told two contradictory tales about the Benghazi terror attack and what he did that night. Instead officials, including Fager, continued to publicly laud its Benghazi work (the news chairman remained "proud" of it, as of November 6), despite the fact that, as one veteran journalist put it, the report represented a "serious problem" for the network.
It was only when the New York Times last night reported that there were even deeper discrepancies in the report that Fager and CBS conceded mistakes were made with regards to its star witness. It wasn't until today's edition of CBS' This Morning that the network's Lara Logan finally admitted that the nearly two-week-old report had been a "mistake" and explained that CBS News had failed to fully vet that witness.
CBS's defensive, slow-footed response was difficult to match up with Fager's previous pronouncements. "When you do make a mistake, boy oh boy own up to it," Fager told Arizona State University journalism students in 2011. "Go out of your way to own up to it." He added: "Credibility is what we sell."
That same year while addressing the City Club of Cleveland, Fager stressed that "one of the most serious threats to a free press is a big mistake without an apology or a correction."
More advice from Fager [emphasis added]:
If you've made a mistake you better recognize it, and tell people you recognize it, and start looking into what went wrong and be very transparent about that.
In both of those cases, Fager was speaking about the lessons CBS News learned in the wake of the 2004 controversy regarding the 60 Minutes II report about President Bush and his service in the Texas Air National Guard and the disputed documents correspondent Dan Rather used. Fager chastised the CBS team that produced that story, claiming it set out to prove a story it wanted to tell and when that happens journalists "tend to leave any mitigating factors out because they might work against your theory, and only disaster can come from that."
Yet critics suggest that's precisely what happened with the 60 Minutes Benghazi report. The program's failure to alert viewers that its witness had given conflicting account of the terror attacks appeared to be a prime example of journalists withholding "mitigating factors."
CBS News has finally offered more than a blanket statement in support of their controversial report on the September 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. But the network has yet to grapple with the pressing questions surrounding their reporting.
The October 27 60 Minutes segment has come under fire from veteran journalists following the revelation that the Benghazi security contractor "witness" featured in the report had apparently changed his story about the night of the attack. The supposed "witness," later identified as Dylan Davies, told CBS that he had gone to the diplomatic compound that night and confronted an attacker. But his story on CBS didn't match his company's incident report, which indicated that he "could not get anywhere near" the compound the night of the attack. The contractor claimed that he had lied to his boss about his whereabouts that night, but told the truth to CBS and in his book about the attacks, which was featured during the segment.
Media Matters founder David Brock has called on CBS News to form an independent investigative committee to review the report, similar to the one established after questions were raised about a 2004 story on President George W. Bush's service in the Air National Guard.
One of the leaders of that investigation, former Associated Press CEO and president Louis Boccardi, told Media Matters that the lesson of that review -- to get the facts quickly and disclose them publicly -- should not be forgotten as the Benghazi report comes under scrutiny.
But CBS News has shown no inclination to take that advice.
Last week, a spokesman would say only that the network stands behind their story. In a November 5 interview with the New York Times, Lara Logan, the correspondent who anchored the report, claimed that they had "killed ourselves not to allow politics into this report" and offered the obviously false statement, "If you read the book, you would know he never had two stories. He only had one story." Even Davies himself has acknowledged giving a different story to his boss than he provided to CBS and in his book -- the question is which time he lied.
CBS did acknowledge one ethical misstep in the report -- their failure to acknowledge that Davies' book, which the report promoted, was published by a CBS subsidiary.
But the network has failed to answer key questions that continue to swirl around the report, and has apparently been dodging questions from other reporters - behavior that points to having less faith in their reporting then they are claiming publicly.
Here are the questions that CBS News should answer to demonstrate the credibility of their work:
1) Was CBS News aware of the incident report indicating that Davies "could not get anywhere near" the Benghazi compound on the night of the attack prior to releasing their story?
2) Did CBS News learn at any point during their year-long Benghazi investigation that Davies had previously offered a contradictory take on his activities? If so, why didn't they reveal that to their audience?
3) What steps did CBS News take in attempting to verify that the story Davies had told them was true?
4) Was CBS News aware that another reporter says he spoke "a number of times" to Davies but ceased communication "when he asked for money"? Did Davies ever ask CBS News for money?
5) Will CBS News revisit the story on-air now that new details have emerged that bring their original story into doubt?
Rather than answer these key questions, CBS News has claimed that criticism of their report is political. But as Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone noted, "It's not. It's Journalism 101."
CBS News correspondent Lara Logan confessed that the network "erred" by failing to disclose the financial connection it shared with the subject of a widely criticized 60 Minutes report on the 2012 Benghazi attacks. But the network's admission of an ethics violation did not extend further, and Logan issued a general defense of the report's accuracy without addressing the persisting questions that surround the report's source's conflicting accounts of the night of the attacks.
On November 5, The New York Times reported that Logan and CBS News were standing by the network's Benghazi reporting, despite a stark admission by Logan that the network made a "mistake" in its failure to disclose that a subsidiary of CBS was publishing a book written by the report's source, Dylan Davies. Jeffrey Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of 60 Minutes, added that he regretted keeping the connection under wraps. From the Times:
CBS News, under fire from critics who dispute details in a "60 Minutes" report on the Benghazi attacks last year that was broadcast on Oct. 27, aggressively defended the report's accuracy on Tuesday and the account of its main interview subject.
At the same time, the correspondent on the report, Lara Logan, said the broadcast erred by failing to acknowledge that a book written by the interview subject was being published by a subsidiary of CBS.
CBS said that Jeffrey Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of "60 Minutes," said on Tuesday that he regretted not making the connection between Mr. Davies and CBS public.
Ms. Logan said, "Honestly, it never factored into the story. It was a mistake; we should have done it, precisely because there's nothing to hide. It was an oversight."
The controversy stems from the October 27 edition of CBS' 60 Minutes, in which Davies, who used the alias Morgan Jones, claimed to be an "eyewitness" of the September 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. He claimed that during the attack he entered the compound, confronted an attacker, and later went to a Benghazi hospital where he claimed to have seen Ambassador Chris Stevens' body -- a story that, according to The Washington Post, did not match the account in an incident report he gave in which he said he "could not get anywhere near" the compound the night of the attack.
After the revelations from the Post, Media Matters chairman David Brock called on CBS to retract its report. Many veteran journalists and media ethicists criticized 60 Minutes' reporting. Facts also emerged about the connection between CBS and Davies' repeated attempts to "profit off his brush with disaster," according to Foreign Policy magazine:
Jones has other ways of cashing in as well. This week, his book titled The Embassy House was published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which is a part of CBS Corporation, which owns 60 Minutes -- a fact not disclosed in the 60 Minutes story. His book is also going to make it on the silver screen. In October, Thunder Road acquired The Embassy House for a feature on the Benghazi attack produced by Basil Iwanyk and executive produced by Taylor Sheridan.
Despite admitting error in failing to inform viewers on the financial conflict, CBS still "aggressively defended the report's accuracy," including Davies' account of the attacks, according to the Times. What's more, Logan, who interviewed Davies for 60 Minutes, blamed "intense political warfare" for the criticism of her report and claimed that, despite the fact that he admitted he lied in at least one of his accounts of the attacks, Davies "never had two stories. He only had one story." Logan failed to specifically address any of the problems with the report.
On Twitter, Huffington Post senior media reporter Michael Calderone called CBS out for its omissions. Calderone characterized CBS' defense of its reporting by saying 60 Minutes "defends Benghazi report without actually answering key questions about its source," and pointed out that "Logan won't explain whether she knew her Benghazi witness gave significantly different account year before her story" even while she "attributes criticism to 'intense political warfare' rather than CBS witness telling two different accounts."
For more on conservative media myths about the September 2012 attack, read The Benghazi Hoax, the new e-book by Media Matters' David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt.
On September 10, 2004, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather dedicated five minutes of the telecast to address the brewing controversy around a 60 Minutes II report he had aired two days earlier. Featuring disputed documents from a former commander in the Texas Air National Guard, the 60 Minutes II report detailed the lingering questions about President Bush's service in a coveted state-side Guard unit during the height of the Vietnam War and how, despite his no-show service, Bush was awarded an honorable discharge.
Within hours of the report, conservative bloggers raised doubts about the documents' validity. The next day, mainstream outlets began airing their own doubts. With the network's credibility on the line, less than 48 hours after the initial report, Rather and CBS responded with a detailed defense of their reporting on its evening newscast, even though the Guard report aired on a different program, 60 Minutes II.
Rather's public defense was just one of many, high-profile actions the embattled network took in an effort to answer critics at the time. By September 20, CBS stopped defending the Guard report. It apologized for airing the segment and announced the creation of an outside panel to investigate what had gone wrong in the reporting process. In the end, four senior CBS producers were let go, 60 Minutes II was canceled, and Dan Rather was soon out as the Evening News anchor. (Rather still stands by his memo reporting.) However, CBS' independent review could not determine if the controversial Guard documents were forged. It did conclude however, there was no evidence the Guard story was driven by partisan considerations inside CBS.
CBS's frantic corporate response to the Guard controversy (which included blatant kowtowing to its partisan critics; see more below) stands in stark contrast to the network's utterly passive, non-response to the widening controversy surrounding the heavily-hyped 60 Minutes report that aired on October 27 about the terrorist attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi in 2012.
That report has been plagued by problems, including obvious conflicts of interest and the more recent revelation that its star witness told contradictory tales about the terror attack and what he did as it unfolded that night.
The difference in the two crisis responses is striking in part because the underlying Guard story that CBS told about Bush failing to serve his duty has been proven to be true: In the spring of 1972, with 770 days left of required duty, then-Lt. Bush unilaterally decided that he was done fulfilling his military obligation and walked away from the Guard. That means CBS could have omitted the disputed documents from its Guard report and still told an accurate story about Bush's non-service.
But CBS's dubious Benghazi report revolved around already debunked allegations about why no U.S. military forces from outside Libya were sent to save the Americans at the besieged Benghazi compound. In other words, CBS's witness controversy is attached to an-already inaccurate Benghazi report, which makes the recent 60 Minutes' transgression more serious than the one that triggered the Guard frenzy.
Journalism veterans tell Media Matters that CBS must address the glaring problems with its Benghazi report and the growing newsroom scandal. Yet the silence persists. So it's worth pondering why CBS responded so quickly, and energetically, to conservative critics in the wake of the Guard story, and why CBS feels comfortable ignoring those who point out gaping holes in its politically charged Benghazi report.
If CBS appointed another review panel this week, it would have a lot to examine.
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."
It's clear that CBS correspondent Lara Logan truly admires Dylan Davies, the British security contractor with a starring eyewitness role in the 60 Minutes report that has galvanized new attention on the September 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Asked in a CBSNews.com Q&A about why Davies (identified by CBS with the pseudonym "Morgan Jones") had decided to speak with the network, Logan said he "is tortured by guilt that he was not able to save his friends in the U.S. Compound, that he wasn't able to save Sean Smith's life or Amb. Stevens' life."
"That may sound ridiculous to people who couldn't think of anything more insane than rushing towards a burning building that is overrun with al Qaeda terrorists," Logan continued, "but Morgan Jones is the kind of man who would do that and who did do that. And when he failed the first time, he went back again."
There's just one problem. The story Davies told CBS diverged wildly from the account he gave his superiors in an incident report that was obtained by The Washington Post.
The October 27 60 Minutes segment featured Davies 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 according to the Post, Davies wrote in his incident report the day after the attack that he spent most of that night at his Benghazi beach-side villa and learned of Stevens' death from a colleague.
The Post reports that Davies' co-author told them that he was unaware of the incident report "but suggested that Davies might have dissembled in it because his superiors, whom he contacted by telephone once he was informed that the attack was underway, told him to stay away from the compound." A CBS spokesman told the paper, "We stand firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday."
Fox News had previously interviewed Davies several times but stopped after he asked the network for money; his new book, billed as an "Explosive Eyewitness Account" of the attack, was released two days after the 60 Minutes report and has already been optioned for a movie. These are all factors that undermine Davies' credibility and should have given CBS pause.
The 60 Minutes report was the result of a year-long investigation by Logan and producer Max McClellan. In the Q&A, they describe what Logan terms an "exhaustive" interview process, speaking with what McClellen describes as "dozens and dozens and dozens" of background interviews over "months and months.
"Journalism is not about making a case, it's about finding the facts," Logan said. "In this story, you had to work really hard to find the facts and not be seduced by anybody."