CBS Still Ducking The Tough 60 Minutes Questions

Network Refuses To Appoint Outside Review of Benghazi Mess

The message from CBS News, following the high-profile implosion of its October 27 Benghazi report? We're sorry. But we're not that sorry.

Coming days after CBS News chief Jeff Fager categorized the Benghazi mess as among the worst blunders in the show's history, the network's eagerly awaited apology on Sunday's night's 60 Minutes turned out to be an extremely tepid and limited effort, with correspondent Lara Logan taking just 90 seconds to walk back what she described as a sourcing error.

Logan's correction, in which she conceded the program “made a mistake,” failed to capture the scope of the 60 Minutes Benghazi blunder. She also refused to address the pressing questions about how she and her colleagues produced such a flawed report; a report that 60 Minutes reportedly worked on for an entire year. (Logan's previous apology on CBS This Morning also failed to address those key issues.) The correction was widely derided by critics as being insufficient and misleading.

Perhaps more importantly, Logan offered no indication that CBS News is undertaking any kind of review to figure out what went so wrong at 60 Minutes, how an entire report was built around a charlatan “eyewitness,” and how the show's bosses can prevent a colossal embarrassment like this from transpiring again.

Remember: In the days that followed the original airing of the troubled Benghazi report, CBS did nothing to re-report or fact-check the story. 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 CBS' own Benghazi story, and only after they uncovered glaring inconsistencies did the network's news division admit that mistakes were made.

To date, CBS has pointedly failed to appoint an independent panel to review the controversial report. That refusal stands in stark contrast to the path CBS took in the wake of its 2004 story about questions surrounding President's George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. That 60 Minutes II report featured documents from one of Bush's former commander that could not be authenticated and sparked widespread condemnation from CBS' conservative critics, as well as an internal crisis at the network.

The double standard here is striking: CBS News chief Jeff Fager says the Benghazi story is among the biggest mistakes in the history of 60 Minutes. So why not appoint an independent review to figure how it happened, the way CBS did the last time the news magazine franchise was embroiled in a politically charged controversy? Why did the National Guard story require a painstaking autopsy performed by outside observers, but Benghazi garnered just a 90-second correction on 60 Minutes? Are CBS executives that nervous about what an autonomous review might undercover this time?

Also, are politics in play? Does CBS not feel the need for an independent review because this time the criticism is coming from mainstream media reporters as well as those on the left? When CBS faced the wrath of the right-wing media in 2004, the network's corporate reaction was noticeably different.

Not only was the review ordered, but it was later discovered that CBS officials were so spooked by the conservative attacks that when it came to assembling its “independent” panel the network reportedly considered including Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge on a list of possible review panelists. Also, CBS insiders were concerned that former GOP senator Warren Rudman would not “mollify” the network's right-wing critics so he was not selected for the “independent” panel.

Meanwhile, note that the importance of an outside and truly independent review is even more pressing today because CBS News boss Fager is also the Executive Producer of 60 Minutes, which would make it impossible for there to be a truly thorough, internal vetting of what went wrong considering Fager himself would be questioned about why his own program screwed up so badly. Ultimately, it would be Fager who'd likely come under the most scrutiny from an outside review; an outside review that Fager so far refuses to appoint. 

The 2004 independent review panel was the centerpiece of CBS' efforts to rebuild its credibility following the National Guard controversy. Panel investigators were 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. The panel worked for three months and interviewed 66 people.

Upon the release of the panel's report and the failings it detailed, CBS chairman Les Moonves announced the network hoped “to address those failures fairly, fully and responsibly, and to set CBS News back on its rightful path as a news organization of great depth, integrity and purpose, stronger than it was before.”

In the end, four producers with more than 80 years in television news experience were dismissed, Dan Rather was eased out as anchor of the CBS Evening News, and 60 Minutes II was soon canceled. By contrast, after Benghazi, 60 Minutes allotted 90 seconds at the very end of its broadcast in order to apologize (in addition to the earlier apology on This Morning). Also, there's no indication that any CBS employees will be reprimanded for the Benghazi mess.

Meanwhile, what has become glaringly obvious in recent days is that, contrary to Fager's previous assurances, CBS News learned little from its National Guard controversy, and did less to make longstanding changes in the way it operates. Specifically, the grave problems that seemed to arise during the reporting of the Benghazi story, as well as the network's misguided defense of the report, are the same problems that the panel told CBS it had to fix.

For instance, note this pointed conclusion from the panel in terms of how CBS should deal with disputed reports [emphasis added]:

If the validity of information presented in a 60 Minutes Wednesday segment comes under a significant challenge, such as occurred with the September 8 Segment, reporting on the challenge will not be left largely or entirely in the hands of those who created the segment at issue. Instead, an additional team, led by someone not involved in the original segment, will be assigned to take the lead in the coverage.

That doesn't appear to have happened the wake of the Benghazi story because it was Logan herself, the person who reported the flawed segment, who then defended it to the New York Times.

I recently noted that earlier this year in an interview with USA Today, CBS chief Moonves singled out the Guard memo “mess” as among the most difficult situations he had to deal with. It “was extremely trying,” Moonves said. “We had to protect the integrity of CBS News, which had this great legacy, and I wanted to make sure we did it properly so that CBS News could thrive again, which I think they've done.”

It's curious that as Moonves watches the still-unfolding 60 Minutes trouble, that he doesn't think the network needs to take additional steps to “protect the integrity of CBS News.”