How CBS Could Have Avoided The 60 Minutes Benghazi Fiasco

Network Chairman Ignored His Own Standards

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.”

Meanwhile, there was a chorus of commentary from news veterans and reporters working the 60 Minutes story, urging CBS to come forward and simply explain how they aired an exclusive interview with a witness who, it turns out, gave divergent eyewitness accounts. “I don't see any way that 60 Minutes would not need to offer an explanation,” Alex S. Jones told Media Matters. Jones is no partisan - he's a 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.

“It's an issue of journalistic integrity and accountability. For six days, CBS News was utterly untransparent,” wrote Dylan Byers at Politico.

On October 27, 60 Minutes featured a supposed “eyewitness” of the September 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities; one 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 story Dylan Davies told CBS though, was wildly different than the far more subdued account he gave his superiors, according to an incident report that was obtained by The Washington Post on October 31. According to the Post, Davies 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.

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 was telling the truth on 60 Minutes and said he would be vindicated by the FBI's report on what he told them shortly after the attack. But the Times reported yesterday that two senior administration sources say that FBI report shows that Davis also told agents he failed to make it to the U.S. compound on the night of the attack.

For a week, nobody at CBS was willing to address a litany of outstanding questions, including:

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?

Only with Logan's apology this morning has the network begun to answer those questions. And until this morning, CBS failed to address the claim by a Fox News reporter that Davies had asked him for money in exchange for an interview.

Plagued by questions and with the network's boilerplate statement that they stood by their segment clearly insufficient, Fager finally emailed a response to the Huffington Post's Michael Calderone on November 6, insisting he's “proud of the reporting that went into the story and have confidence that our sources, including those who appeared on 60 Minutes, told accurate versions of what happened that night.”

But as Calderone noted, Fager's statement failed the address the fundamental questions about why the 60 Minutes report “should be trusted in light of Davies' admission that he previously lied about his whereabouts.” (It clearly should not.)

And by the way, if Fager was so “proud” of CBS's work, why wasn't the veteran journalist willing to discuss the Benghazi issue with a reporter who can ask follow-up questions, rather than Fager issuing a one-way statement and dodging the details? That's not how a “proud” chairman deals with a newsroom crisis.  That's how a nervous chairman deals with one. 

Again, none of this behavior matches with how journalists should conduct themselves, according to Fager's own advice, especially when reporters face pointed, fact-based criticism. “I just think especially the press, we hold people to certain standards, we should be held to the highest of standards,” he said in 2011.

The unmistakable conclusion? CBS News didn't abide by the journalism standards that its own chief thinks others should.