CBS News' apparent decision to have one of its own producers conduct an internal “journalistic review” of the network's discredited 60 Minutes Benghazi report -- and effectively investigate the decisions of his boss -- is drawing harsh criticism from newsroom veterans and media experts.
The critiques follow a damaging week for the network as it received constant hits for its airing of a report that featured a former British security consultant who apparently lied about witnessing the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, a lackluster apology aimed at ending the scandal, and an unwillingness to explain how or whether it plans to investigate itself and reveal how it blundered so badly.
The latest word came today via Politico's Dylan Byers, who reported that he had learned, in spite of the efforts of the network, that Al Ortiz, a CBS News executive producer for special events, would be conducting what CBS has termed an ongoing “journalistic review” of the segment. Ortiz reports to CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, who is also the executive producer of 60 Minutes. Ortiz's conflict of interest, Byers noted, is especially relevant as Fager's dual role has been cited as a factor that may have contributed to the flawed report.
“In a world where perception matters, to have someone investigate their supervisor is a built-in conflict of interest,” said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a former CNN correspondent. “I know Al and I am sure he will do a fine job. But as a practical matter, if you want to do a no-holds-bar complete investigation, this is not it.”
Sesno, who spoke as he boarded a plane back to Washington Friday to guest host Reliable Sources on CNN this Sunday, said this would be a hot topic on the show.
“They shouldn't call it an investigation,” he added. “If this is what they do, then Al is writing a memo. I'm not sure it is the word investigation in the way the outside world would define that. When you do these things, you have to do them all the way.”
And Sesno was not alone. Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman was among others who said the investigation lacks credibility before it begins.
“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,” said Shepard. “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.”
Kevin Smith, ethics chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, agreed.
“I think given the way this has played out thus far for CBS, a more thoughtful approach might be to have an external review given these noted conflicts by Politico,” he said via email. “I don't see how CBS or 60 Minutes makes any headway on the credibility front and mending its reputation by offering a minimal apology and then following up with an internal audit that has the appearance of conflicts of interest.”
He later added, “there isn't a lot of confidence in the news division at CBS right now, and at some point they need to start making decisions that show an attempt to right the ship. I don't know this is helping the cause.”
For Michael Getler, PBS ombudsman, an internal investigation by CBS News' own people could work, but only if it is truly independent.
“The investigators must have carte blanche from the top of the organization so there is no fear of retribution or no place that is off limits,” he said.