After the publication of Media Matters' ebook The Benghazi Hoax, which tells the story of how the right twisted a tragedy into a failed witch hunt against the Obama administration, CBS News came under fire from media critics and journalism experts for airing a botched 60 Minutes report on Benghazi that featured a supposed eyewitness to the attacks who had lied about his actions the night of the attack. The story resulted in an internal investigation into how 60 Minutes got it wrong and a leave of absence by correspondent Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan. Here's the story of how CBS got burned by the Benghazi hoax.
For more on conservative media myths about the September 2012 attack, read The Benghazi Hoax, the new ebook by Media Matters' David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt.
60 Minutes had a bombshell -- or so it thought. Correspondent Lara Logan and her producer Max McClellan had spent more than a year investigating the attack in Benghazi and conducted more than 100 interviews. They wanted to give the news magazine's audience a firsthand account of what took place on September 11, 2012.
The heavily promoted report was 60 Minutes' lead story on the evening of October 27, 2013. Immediately, it was obvious that the program had fallen for several of the previously debunked Benghazi hoaxes. Most notably, in Logan's interview with “whistleblower” Greg Hicks, she led off by saying, “The lingering question is why no larger military response ever crossed the border into Libya.”
There were no lingering questions about the military's response. Those questions had been repeatedly asked and answered, by the Accountability Review Board, during congressional hearings, and in numerous media accounts of the event.
For months, generals and former defense secretaries including Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, Adm. Mike Mullen, and Gen. Martin Dempsey had debunked the idea that the United States could have responded to the attack in Benghazi quicker or with more force.
Logan also claimed the CIA teams stationed at the annex was ordered “to wait” before responding to the attack. This falsehood was debunked by the Accountability Review Board, which wrote “the departure of the Annex team was not delayed by orders from superiors.”
The new element in CBS' report -- designed to draw buzz to the subject -- was an interview that Logan conducted with “Morgan Jones,” who was identified as a “former British soldier” and “security officer who witnessed the attack.” 60 Minutes told viewers that “Morgan Jones” was a pseudonym he was using “for his own safety.”
In actuality, “Jones” was a private security contractor named Dylan Davies who worked for Blue Mountain Security, a British company run by a former SAS officer. Blue Mountain was responsible for the diplomatic compound's locally hired unarmed guards, whose assignments included raising and lowering the security gate, checking IDs, and other basic security tasks.
During his 60 Minutes interview, Davies suggested a key problem in Benghazi was that his guards remained unarmed, while a second Libyan security force -- the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, a group Davies claimed to be incompetent -- provided armed security. While this claim was in line with the Accountability Review Board's findings, Davies' faith in his own employees at Blue Mountain was contradicted by both media reports about their performance and the Accountability Review Board, which wrote in its unclassified report that the Blue Mountain guards were “poorly skilled.”
The most compelling part of Davies' 60 Minutes interview was his harrowing and heroic tale from that night -- one that was the center of a book he had co-written. The book, called The Embassy House: The Explosive Eyewitness Account of the Libyan Embassy Siege by the Soldier Who Was There, would be published later that week by Threshold, a conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster.
Unmentioned throughout the 60 Minutes report was the fact that Simon & Schuster and CBS share a parent company, suggesting that CBS could have had a financial motivation for running a report hyping Davies' story.
In the book and on 60 Minutes, Davies talked about hearing gunshots in a phone call he received from one of the local guards he oversaw at the compound, which was 15 minutes away from where he lived in the city. In a plot straight out of a James Bond film, Davies claimed that went to the compound and scaled its 12-foot wall as Al Qaeda fighters rampaged through the facility.
Davies said, “One guy saw me. He just shouted. I couldn't believe that he'd seen me 'cause it was so dark. He started walkin' towards me.”
According to the former British soldier, the excitement continued: “I just hit him with the butt of the rifle in the face” and “he went down.” This was further dramatized during his interview with Logan, in which she led her subject:
LARA LOGAN: He dropped?
MORGAN JONES: Yeah, like -- like a stone.
LOGAN: With his face smashed in?
The right was ecstatic. Even though the report did not mention President Obama or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, they claimed the report had vindicated their year of scandalmongering. Fox News contributor Jonah Goldberg expressed the feelings of many on the right, tweeting, “This 60 Minutes #benghazi piece corroborates pretty much everything #foxnews has reported so far.” The day after the 60 Minutes segment aired, Fox News would run 13 segments on 11 programs, for a total of more than 47 minutes of coverage. Echoing Goldberg, Bret Baier proclaimed, “Last night, one of journalism's heavy hitters reaffirmed what we knew and had reported on.” On Fox & Friends, Steve Doocy blustered, "60 Minutes doesn't cover phony scandals."
From The 700 Club to Breitbart.com, conservatives joined Fox in cheering the 60 Minutes report.
This was ironic, given the fact that 60 Minutes had long been derided by conservatives, in particular for Dan Rather's report on George W. Bush's National Guard service, for which Rather later apologized.
The right's excitement was overblown, as usual. The 60 Minutes report followed the same pattern as every other element of the Benghazi hoax documented in this book. Supposedly new revelations were simply warmed-over versions of hoaxes debunked months before; context that would provide critical information to viewers or readers was missing; and the right-wing media exaggerated the new allegations from the original report into something unrecognizable.
Nothing in the 60 Minutes report implicated Obama or Clinton in any wrongdoing leading up to the attack in Benghazi -- in fact, their names were never mentioned. But conservatives were already on the attack against the president and former secretary of state.
On the Monday after the Davies episode of 60 Minutes aired, Sen. Lindsey Graham threatened to block every nomination before the Senate until “the survivors [of Benghazi] are being made available to Congress.” The South Carolina senator never mentioned that the survivors had already answered questions from numerous investigators and that the Senate had access to those interviews. Graham was joined by fellow Benghazi hoaxsters Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Sen. Kelly Ayotte in promoting the report.
One moment that raised a red flag the day after the report aired was an offhand statement from Fox News correspondent Adam Housley, who reported that Davies had been a source of his. However, Housley said, he had “stopped speaking to him when he asked for money.”
Initially, 60 Minutes refused to apologize, except for its failure to disclose the financial relationship between CBS and the book's publisher. In the middle of that week, the story took its first blow when The Washington Post reported that an incident report from Davies contradicted the account he provided on 60 Minutes and in his book:
In Davies's 2 1/ 2-page incident report to Blue Mountain, the Britain-based contractor hired by the State Department to handle perimeter security at the compound, he 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 learned of Stevens's death, Davies wrote, when a Libyan colleague who had been at the hospital came to the villa to show him a cellphone picture of the ambassador's blackened corpse. Davies wrote that he visited the still-smoking compound the next day to view and photograph the destruction.
60 Minutes held fast, telling the paper that it “stand[s] firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday.”
Over the next few days, CBS stonewalled many in the press, refusing to speak on the phone with several major media reporters, choosing instead to send out terse emails that often failed to answer basic and appropriate questions about the story.
After refusing to speak with The Washington Post, Davies resurfaced to talk with Eli Lake of The Daily Beast. Lake was likely chosen because of his status as a right-wing foreign policy reporter who writes for a mainstream publication. Davies told Lake he “believed there was a coordinated campaign to smear him.”
Responding to the idea that there was a discrepancy between the Blue Mountain incident report and the story he told 60 Minutes, Davies claimed he did not write the document in question but that the story it contained did match what he told his supervisor at the company. He said the story in the incident report was a lie he told to hide the fact that he had disobeyed his boss, who had ordered him to stay at his villa.
While 60 Minutes continued to defend its piece, Lara Logan told The New York Times that she "attributed the critical response to the report to the intense political warfare that has surrounded the episode."
Prominent authorities on journalism were not so kind. Interviewed by Media Matters' Joe Strupp, many spoke out in shock at CBS' behavior including Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute who said, “What they should have acknowledged was the fact that he wrote a report saying that he wasn't at the site.” She continued, “They should have acknowledged that ... they either didn't know about it or they failed to anticipate that critics would use this as a way of tearing down their story.” She concluded that “considering that this guy, that his very presence at the compound that night is in question, they could have tried to verify from other sources that he was. Other sources, even if those were off the record sources, they could have done something to address this discrepancy.”
On the evening of November 7, 60 Minutes' story completely imploded. The New York Times' Bill Carter and Michael S. Schmidt reported that Davies “gave the F.B.I. an account of the night that terrorists attacked the mission on Sept. 11, 2012 that contradicts a version of events he provided in a recently published book and in an interview.” This contrasted directly with Davies' claim that his interview with the FBI lined up with the account in his book and on 60 Minutes.
CBS finally had to concede the story was fatally flawed. Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of 60 Minutes, told the Times, “We're surprised to hear about this, and if it shows we've been misled, we will make a correction.” The network pulled the story off its website and YouTube channel, and it posted a statement that read: “60 Minutes has learned of new information that undercuts the account told to us by Morgan Jones of his actions on the night of the attack on the Benghazi compound. We are currently looking into this serious matter to determine if he misled us, and if so, we will make a correction.”
Appearing on CBS This Morning the next day, Logan said, “We were wrong. We made a mistake.” She also told the audience that 60 Minutes would issue a correction the following Sunday. As CBS offered apologies, Threshold decided to take the costly step of pulling The Embassy House from circulation.
On Sunday, at the tail end of the program, Logan appeared on camera to issue her correction. “We end our broadcast tonight with a correction on a story we reported October 27 about the attack on the American special mission compound in Benghazi, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed,” Logan said. “In the story, a security officer working for the State Department, Dylan Davies, told us he went to the compound during the attack and detailed his role that night.”
After our report aired, questions arose about whether his account was true, when an incident report surfaced. It told a different story about what he did the night of the attack. Davies denied having anything to do with that incident report and insisted the story he told us was not only accurate, it was the same story he told the FBI when they interviewed him.
On Thursday night, when we discovered the account he gave the FBI was different than what he told us, we realized we had been misled, and it was a mistake to include him in our report. For that, we are very sorry. The most important thing to every person at 60 Minutes is the truth, and the truth is, we made a mistake.
The apology was not well received. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote on Twitter, “Two outstanding features of the @60Minutes correction: written in the passive voice, edits out the role played by other news organizations.”
Also on Twitter, New York magazine writer Frank Rich observed, “Failure of @CBSNews to report how Lara Logan was duped for 'a year' (her claim) by a Benghazi hoax guarantees others will do it for them.”
Former Meet the Press host Marvin Kalb wrote at Politico, “CBS News remains an immensely important resource, but it has now suffered an avoidable setback at a time when all of the media is under a cloud of doubt and suspicion. The network must regain the credibility it lost in Benghazi.”
After several days of heavy criticism, CBS announced it was conducting a “journalistic review” of the report. The network gave a statement to McClatchy News that implied the investigation had begun immediately after criticism of the story arose, despite having previously declared it would make no further statements on the matter, and previously stating no such investigation was taking place.
This investigation was not “independent” of CBS. Al Ortiz, executive producer for special events at CBS News, was appointed to head the investigation. Dylan Byers of Politico pointed out the problem with this review: Ortiz is “tasked with conducting an investigation of his own boss, Jeff Fager. Fager is both the executive producer of '60 Minutes' and the chairman of CBS News, which means that any dirt Ortiz digs up on '60 Minutes' reporting will reflect back on the man who pays his check.”
Alicia Shepard, former ombudsman at NPR told Joe Strupp of Media Matters, “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.” Shepard continued, “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.”
In 2004, following a 60 Minutes story that questioned George W. Bush's service in the National Guard, whose reporting was based in part on forged documents, CBS fired four producers, effectively ended the storied career of anchor Dan Rather, and canceled the 60 Minutes II franchise on which the segment aired.
Ultimately the pressure grew too great. Two days before Thanksgiving, Jeff Fager sent an email announcing the results of Ortiz's investigation and informing CBS staff that “I have asked Lara Logan, who has distinguished herself and has put herself in harm's way many times in the course of covering stories for us, to take a leave of absence, which she has agreed to do.” Additionally Fager “asked the same of producer Max McClellan, who also has a distinguished career at CBS News.”
Acknowledging the story was a “regrettable mistake” Fager wrote “when faced with a such an error, we must use it as an opportunity to make our broadcast even stronger.”
While clearly CBS was trying to put their Benghazi Hoax behind them, many questions were still left unanswered about the report including:
- How did 60 Minutes find Dylan Davies?
- Was there an agreement with Threshold to promote his book in the lead up to its release?
- Al Ortiz's review does not address the role of senior CBS executives including network Chairman and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager in the airing of the Benghazi piece. What was the role of Fager and other executives in vetting/approving the segment?
- How long are Logan and McClellan on leave for?
- Ortiz's review repeatedly mentions that a “team” was involved in producing the segment but names no one except Logan and McClellan. Who else was involved in reporting the story? Who reviewed and approved the final draft? Did anyone at any time raise questions about the quality of the reporting?
Until these and other questions are answered CBS will not have moved past its role in perpetuating the Benghazi Hoax.