Following 60 Minutes' tepid, incomplete apology for their retracted October 27 report on Benghazi, a broad array of media observers are criticizing the network's response to the controversy.
After stonewalling critics of their report, CBS finally retracted the segment on November 7, long after it had become clear that there were serious questions about the credibility of the supposed “eyewitness” at the center of their story.
In a November 8 interview on CBS This Morning, 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan told viewers that “we were wrong” to air the segment and indicated that the network planned to “correct the record” on the November 10 edition of 60 Minutes.
But 60 Minutes devoted a mere 90 seconds to its correction and declined to adequately explain how the segment had made it to the air in the first place.
Following the correction, Media Matters founder David Brock called Logan's apology “wholly inadequate” and reiterated his call for the network to appoint an independent commission to investigate the botched report:
This evening's 60 Minutes response was wholly inadequate and entirely self-serving. The network must come clean by appointing an independent commission to determine exactly how and why it fell prey so easily to an obvious hoax.
Numerous commentators and media observers are also harshly criticizing CBS' report, with several pointing out that it leaves important questions unanswered. (Greg Mitchell is also rounding up some of the criticism at The Nation, noting that “leading critics” are demanding the network launch a formal investigation of the story.)
NY Times: "The Apology Was Deemed Inadequate By A Wide Range Of Commentators." In an article for The New York Times, Bill Carter and Brian Stelter highlighted the widespread criticism of 60 Minutes' apology and quoted Paul Friedman, former CBS executive vice president for news, saying, “in the short term, this will confirm the worst suspicious of people who don't trust CBS News”:
[T]he CBS News chairman, Jeff Fager, who is also the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” has not ordered an investigation, and on Sunday a spokesman indicated that the program was going to let its televised apology be its last word on the issue.
However, the apology was deemed inadequate by a wide range of commentators on Sunday night. Craig Silverman, of the correction blog Regret the Error, predicted that it would not “take the heat off CBS News.”
“Aside from the fact that it struck a very passive tone and pushed the responsibility onto the source, Dylan Davies, it said nothing about how the show failed to properly vet the story of an admitted liar,” Mr. Silverman said in an email. “There are basic questions left unanswered about how the program checked out what Davies told them, and where this process failed.”
“In the short term, this will confirm the worst suspicions of people who don't trust CBS News,” said Paul Friedman, CBS's executive vice president for news until 2011. “In the long term, a lot will depend on how tough and transparent CBS can be in finding out how this happened -- especially when there were not the kind of tight deadline pressures that sometimes result in errors.” [New York Times, 11/11/13]
Former CBS Reporter Marvin Kalb: CBS “Must Do More Than Apologize.” Former CBS reporter Marvin Kalb wrote in a Politico op-ed that CBS “must regain the credibility it lost in Benghazi”:
Apologies are important, indeed potentially ground-shaking, especially at CBS, which remembers well the last time, in 2004, when it was trapped in a mistaken story about President George W. Bush's military service and forced to drop anchor Dan Rather (never to return to CBS's good graces), a leading producer and ultimately the president of the network. In this case, following the apologies, perhaps CBS (and other networks, too) will engage in a wide-ranging, no-holds-barred self-analysis of its reporting standards, starting one hopes with the unholy alliance it has formed with book publishers pushing their hot exclusives. Its deal with Davies/Jones, leading to its current embarrassment, is an excellent example of CBS not only rushing to judgment but also lending its somewhat tattered credibility to a false god of glory and ratings found in a Monday-morning headline.
The Benghazi story had an impact, no doubt. It made headlines, generated another round of talk-show palaver and even prompted some Republicans, such as South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham, to put a hold on confirmation hearings for Jeh Johnson, the nominee for homeland security secretary, and Janet L. Yellen, the nominee for head of the Federal Reserve System. Other Republicans seized on the “60 Minutes” story to call for new investigations of the Obama administration's defense of its actions during the Benghazi attack. Will Senator Graham now apologize for jumping the gun on the Benghazi story and lift his hold on Obama's two nominees? Tune in. In broadcasting, the story generally trumps the apology in impact and consequence.
CBS management might also use this humiliating moment to look once again at its “sourcing” policy. “60 Minutes” based its Benghazi story essentially on the word of one man. It did of course examine congressional testimony and other reports, and Logan said she also had “access” to “communications” between Davies/Jones and the U.S. government. But anyone watching the “60 Minutes” piece had to conclude that Davies/Jones was her principal source, and some may even argue her only source. This is not sound policy.
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. It can, but it will take time. [Politico, 11/10/13]
Politico Media Reporter Dylan Byers: CBS' Apology “Offered Little In The Way Of An Explanation For The Show's Error.” Politico media reporter Dylan Byers highlighted the fact that Logan's apology did not explain why “they did not adequately vet Davies prior to airing the interview”:
Logan's apology, which echoed remarks she had made Friday on “CBS This Morning,” was an attempt to correct an error that has dogged “60 Minutes” and CBS News for more than two weeks now. But her apology offered little in the way of an explanation for the show's error, which has become a black mark for a program that has long prided itself on the depth and thoroughness of its reporting.
To date, Logan and “60 Minutes” have yet to explain why they did not adequately vet Davies prior to airing the interview. They also have not explained why they did not obtain a copy of Davies' interview with the FBI, in which he said he was not present at the U.S. diplomatic mission on the night of the attack. [Politico, 11/10/13]
Fox News Media Analyst Howard Kurtz: CBS Retraction “Leaves Many Questions Unanswered.” Fox News host and media analyst Howard Kurtz criticized CBS for its inadequate apology, saying that it “leaves many questions unanswered.”
He also criticized the network for putting “all its marbles on a liar.”
New York Editor Gabriel Sherman: 60 Minutes “Should Have Turned Its Reporting Muscle Back On Itself To Explain To Viewers What Happened And Why.” After the apology aired, New York Magazine editor Gabriel Sherman tweeted:
NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik: “CBS Needs To Offer Transparent Account Of How The Process Went Off The Rails.” From Twitter:
Northeastern University Journalism Professor Dan Kennedy Labels Correction “Pathetically Inadequate.” From Twitter:
Huffington Post Media Reporter Michael Calderone: CBS “Needs To Fully Explain What Went Wrong.” Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone strongly criticized CBS' apology, writing that the short segment “didn't resemble a news program seriously trying to get to the bottom of how it got duped.” From Huffington Post:
Sunday's brief acknowledgment didn't resemble a news program seriously trying to get to the bottom of how it got duped. Logan didn't address during the show how Davies came to be a source for “60 Minutes,” the vetting process of his account, whether the FBI was contacted during the original reporting or after doubts were raised, and the connection between the television booking on Oct. 27 and publication by a CBS subsidiary on Oct. 29.
Logan spent roughy 90 seconds at the end of Sunday' s broadcast commenting on the network's most high-profile mistake since Dan Rather's discredited report on George W. Bush's military record over nine years ago on “60 Minutes Wednesday.” (By comparison, “This American Life” devoted an hour-long program last year to a story it retracted.) On Sunday, Logan said she was making a “correction,” which downplayed the severity of CBS News retracting a story that took a year to report and had political impact. The day after the CBS report featuring Davies, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called for holding White House nominees until all Benghazi witnesses appear before Congress.
The terse manner in which “60 Minutes” handled the “correction” Sunday night follows the cavalier way in which the program handled questions about Davies' credibility for a week, only admitting the mistake after the revelation of a second conflicting account.
“60 Minutes” dodged questions about Davies credibility after The Washington Post reported on Oct. 31 that the paper had obtained a company incident report indicating he never reached the compound on the night of the attack. [Huffington Post, 11/11/13]
NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen: CBS Apology Inadequate, “Attention Now Turns To Jeff Fager.” In a post at his blog PressThink, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen highlighted the “basic inadequacy” of CBS' correction, adding that "[a]ttention now turns to Jeff Fager, as the person at CBS (executive producer of '60 Minutes') who approved the final cut of a deeply flawed report":
In a very brief note at the end of '60 Minutes,' CBS said it has been misled by its source, apologized for putting him on the air and that was about it. No mention of the book contract, even. Lara Logan, who read the apology, went nowhere near an accounting for the reckless denials I wrote about. Nor did she explain how any of this could have happened.
Two things stand out for me about this correction, besides its basic inadequacy for being so minimal. One is the passive voice: “questions arose,” “an incident report surfaced.” This wording allows CBS to erase the role played by other news organizations in forcing it to face the problems with its reporting. Attention now turns to Jeff Fager, as the person at CBS (executive producer of '60 Minutes') who approved the final cut of a deeply flawed report starring a source CBS knew to have lied to his employer, and the executive at CBS, boss of the news division, who decided that it was time to move on from that mistake. Can that conflict of interest stand? So far it looks like it will. [PressThink.org, 11/10/13]
Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall: CBS' “Bogus” Apology Was "Pretty Amazing For Its Brevity, Lack Of Substance And General Obfuscation." In a post at Talking Points Memo, editor and publisher Josh Marshall ripped CBS for “obfuscating” the severity of their botched report and for building a story around “a complete charlatan”:
I just watched the 60 Minutes “correction”/apology tonight and thought was pretty amazing for its brevity, lack of substance and general obfuscation. If you didn't watch 60 Minutes tonight, it won't take long. It only lasted 90s or so. And you can see it here.
In a narrow sense, Lara Logan did say she was “sorry.” But the entire 90 seconds was aimed at obfuscating what happened.
If you'd come to this 90 seconds without knowing anything that had happened over the last couple weeks, you would probably think that one person interviewed in a 60 Minutes segment may have been misleading in some of the things he said.
This gets to the core issue. 60 Minutes allowed a complete charlatan top billing on their show. He wasn't part of a segment. He was the segment. And the piece made a big, big splash.
Usually, when journalists deal with charlatans, it's a tricky business because it's usually a matter of proving a negative. You need to come up with evidence of various sorts that either proves or undermines their credibility. You seldom get so lucky as to have two independent pieces of documentary evidence that completely impeach the source's account (first, his immediate reports to his employers and second, the later account to the FBI). Neither could have been that difficult for a news organization of CBS News' size and heft to find since the Post and the Times got both within 10 days of the story airing.
The fact that 60 Minutes says this segment was reported for an entire year and yet failed to uncover this impeaching evidence is astounding. But the details are even worse. According to 60 Minutes' account, they knew that Davies had written an after-action report for his employers which completely contradicted his account. But apparently he told them that he lied to his supervisors because he wasn't supposed to go to the compound.
Occam's Razor does not treat that explanation kindly. When are you more likely to embellish or lie? In an immediate after action report when there's little reason to believe that your own role will ever be a matter of consequence or that the incident itself will become a topic of immense controversy? Or a year later when you write a tell-all book chronicling your exploits for a conservative book publisher and there's fame and lots of money at stake?
I don't know the players involved enough to know whether this happened because of bias, indifference, arrogance or wild sloppiness. But you can't screw up much bigger than this. At a minimum there needs to be some detailed explanation of how this big a screw could have happened. And the comparison with the aftermath of the Rather/Bush Air National Guard debacle (largely deserved in terms of who was held accountable) speaks volumes. [Talking Points Memo, 11/10/13]
Baltimore Sun TV Critic David Zurawik: CBS “Is Kidding Itself” If It Thinks “This Is Enough.” Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik wrote that 60 Minutes' audience deserves a “more substantive” explanation for “so serious an error” and that the network “is kidding itself” if it believes that “this is enough to allow the most successful franchise in the history of TV to turn the page and move on credibility intact.” From The Baltimore Sun:
I have to admit I was surprised by what a flimsy correction “60 Minutes” issued on air Sunday night.
I think the show's millions of loyal viewers deserved something more substantive for so serious an error.
I hope “60 Minutes” will do better than this in coming days and weeks. If CBS News management thinks this is enough to allow the most successful franchise in the history of TV to turn the page and move on credibility intact, it is kidding itself.
I couldn't help thinking Sunday night what the late Don Hewitt, founder of “60 Minutes,” would have had to say -- or how he would have handled it. [Z on TV, Baltimore Sun, 11/10/13]
Poynter Institute Ethics Instructor Kelly McBride: "The Big Question To 60 Minutes Is 'Do You Think That [Correction] Will Do?' I Don't Think It Will." In an interview with Media Matters, Poynter Institute ethics instructor Kelly McBride said that criticism of CBS' apology was “spot on” and that CBS needed to address breakdowns in its reporting process:
Kelly McBride, ethics instructor at The Poynter Institute, agreed with critics who are pointing out the shortcomings of 60 Minutes' apology.
“I think the criticism is spot on and I don't think people are going to let this go until CBS explains the answer to two very specifics questions,” she said in an interview. “The first is, what did they do to vet Dylan Davies? And where did the process breakdown?”
She later added, “It is entirely possible that someone with an agenda was trying to influence the story. Who was inappropriately influencing that story? The big question to 60 Minutes is 'do you think that [correction] will do? I don't think it will.” [Media Matters, 11/11/13]
ASU Journalism Professor Tim McGuire: “Viewers Are Still Owed An Answer As To Why That Vetting Failed.” Speaking to Media Matters, Arizona State University journalism professor and former editor of The Star-Tribune Tim McGuire said, “Davies is clearly a liar but when viewers viewed the original report they rightfully had every expectation that CBS and Logan had thoroughly checked out Davies. It would seem viewers are still owed an answer as to why that vetting failed.” [Media Matters, 11/11/13]
UC Berkley Graduate School of Journalism Dean Edward Wasserman: CBS Apology Raised The Question Of “What Conclusions Do I Now Draw From The Report?” In an interview with Media Matters, Edward Wasserman, Dean of the UC Berkley Graduate School of Journalism criticized CBS for the “very problematic” fact that CBS-owned Simon & Schuster also released a book based on Davies' discredited account:
Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and a Miami Herald columnist, highlighted the “very problematic element” that CBS Corporation-owned Simon & Schuster published a book based on Davies' account two days after the October 27 segment aired.
“They had some cowboy, they didn't check him out and they were already putting their chips on the table with him,” Wasserman said, pointing to Davies' accompanying book, The Embassy House, which has since been pulled from bookstore shelves. “That was a very problematic element.”
“When I heard the apology, I wanted to know how I should now view the report, they never addressed that,” he added. “The real question the viewer has is what conclusions do I now draw from the report?” [Media Matters, 11/11/13]
Bill Press: “Today's Benghazi Problem For CBS Mirrors” National Guard Scandal. Writing in The Hill, radio host and author Bill Press said that CBS' Benghazi problem “mirrors” its screw-up over the National Guard memos in 2004:
The only problem, of course, is that Davies had earlier told the FBI, under oath, that he was nowhere near the scene: the same story he had told his employer. In other words, after admittedly working on the story for more than a year, Logan and the producers of “60 Minutes” knew Davies had already lied once about his actions on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, -- yet they still put him on the air as telling the truth. After the fact, Logan admitted her mistake and apologized on Nov. 9.
Today's Benghazi problem for CBS mirrors its other big screw-up, in 2004, when Dan Rather used forged documents in a negative story about former President George W. Bush's National Guard service. There's one big difference: Dan Rather lost his job, and Lara Logan still has hers. But if CBS was guilty of “liberal bias” back then, as conservatives loudly claimed at the time, it's just as clearly guilty of “conservative bias” today. That's what happens when journalists cross the line and play the political blame game. They destroy a reputation for excellence gained over 45 years. [The Hill, 11/11/13]
Former 60 Minutes Producer Steven Reiner: CBS “Should Explain Their Verification Process And How It Broke Down.” In an interview with The Washington Post, former 60 Minutes producer Steven Reiner said CBS “needs to be transparent about this” and “to simply say they were wrong and fooled is merely stating the obvious.” [The Washington Post, 11/12/13]
Former CBS Correspondent Terence Smith: Logan “Has Major Egg On Her Face.” Speaking to The Washington Post, former CBS and PBS correspondent Terence Smith said CBS needs “to do a thorough reconstruction of their reporting” to assure viewers that the report “was not done to help sell books for Simon & Schuster,” adding that Lara Logan “has major egg on her face.” [The Washington Post, 11/12/13]
Thomas Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute: CBS Made “An Acknowledgement Of Error, But This Didn't Create Clarity.” In an interview with The Daily Beast, American Press Institute executive director Thomas Rosenstiel said the apology “was an acknowledgement of error, but this didn't create clarity. What was wrong? Why was that confusion created? Why does this matter? So what? And I don't think CBS has met that test.” [The Daily Beast, 11/12/13]