Journalism veterans and media observers continue to strike the same chord while launching a chorus of criticism at CBS News in recent days: The network needs to be transparent and explain exactly what happened with its botched Benghazi report, and start detailing how such an obviously flawed report made in onto the most-watched news program in America.
And yet it's silence from CBS, which is now stonewalling press inquiries, as well as the calls for an outside review of its Benghazi reporting. CBS' refusal to undergo a public examination in the wake of such a landmark blunder stands in stark contrast to how news organizations have previously dealt with black eyes; news organizations that once included CBS News.
CBS is now taking a radically different approach. There appears to have been a corporate decision made that granting members of an independent review panel unfettered access to 60 Minutes represents a greater danger than the deep damage currently being done to the network's brand via the two-week-old scandal.
So again and again the question bounces back to this: What is CBS hiding? And who is CBS protecting?
I'm sure network executives there are embarrassed by the controversy and wish the report hadn't aired as it did. There's a reason Jeff Fager, Chairman of CBS News (above left), ranked it as among the worst mistakes in the nearly 50 year history of 60 Minutes. But as we learn more and more about the errors and oversights, it's becoming increasingly difficult to understand the magnitude of the malfeasance; the refusal by CBS to follow even rudimentary rules of journalism.
In a small but telling example, Mother Jones recently reviewed the Benghazi book that CBS' discredited “witness,” Dylan Davies, co-wrote, and which CBS supposedly relied on to corroborate this tale, which included him informing the FBI about his heroic actions the night of the attack at the U.S. compound in Benghazi. (It was later confirmed Davies wasn't even at the compound and the book was quickly recalled.) Mother Jones found Davies' published account to be completely, and almost comically, unbelievable:
Davies' improbable account of FBI agents weeping and spouting grateful platitudes only underscores how negligent 60 Minutes was in vetting its story. Even if the FBI wouldn't confirm Davies' account, why didn't they corroborate his tale with others who'd been there?
But is being embarrassed really justification for not trying to find out why the mistakes were made and to inform viewers what happened? And if CBS refuses to learn from these sloppy mistakes, isn't the network guaranteed to repeat them?
As it stonewalls, CBS cannot avoid the fact that in 2004 when 60 Minutes II was caught in a crossfire of conservative outrage after airing a disputed report about President Bush's Vietnam War record, the network appointed a former Republican attorney general, Richard Thornburgh, to investigate what went wrong. The review panel was 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, interviewed 66 people, and issued an-often scathing 234-page report.
Today, that standard established by CBS is being purposefully bypassed. But why? Is it a fear of even further embarrassment? If you're asking what could be more embarrassing than the current set of facts in which CBS was duped by an “eyewitness” impostor, the answer is, plenty. Imagine the possibly explosive findings to these questions:
*Did CBS executives have internal discussions about the network's clear conflict of interest with regards to Davies' book being published by CBS-owned Simon & Schuster and decided not to reference that conflict in the final Benghazi report?
*Did the impending book release impact the reporting in the segment or the timing of the broadcast?
*Did 60 Minutes producers have extensive contacts with partisan Republican sources while reporting on Benghazi?
*Did any CBS executives express serious doubts about Davies' account only to be overruled by Logan?
*Were script changes made to remove any doubts about Davies' account?
My guess is that a truly transparent review would find 'yes' answers to two or three of those questions. But without an independent inquiry we won't know. In that regard, refusing to appoint a review panel covers up more bad news, which is what CBS seemingly wants. But a review could also help exonerate CBS with regards to some allegations, and address doubts about its professionalism.
Recall that one of the key conclusions from the National Guard panel review was that political bias did not play a role in how the controversial 2004 story was put together. For the Benghazi story though, it's impossible to know if CBS is equally free of prejudice unless there's an independent assessment.
The other key question: By resisting an honest and open evaluation, are CBS bosses trying to protect key players? Keep in mind that following the release of the National Guard panel review, several employees were fired, including the executive producer of 60 Minutes II. Given the extent of the Benghazi screw-up, it's likely an outside review today would find fault with the executive producer of today's 60 Minutes. Who is executive producer of 60 Minutes? It's Jeff Fager, who also runs CBS News. (The dual titles seem like an obvious conflict of interest.)
And since 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan says she was deeply involved in the reporting and the editing of the Benghazi piece, it's likely she would be the target of a stinging rebuke. So is CBS refusing to appoint an independent panel in an effort to protect its news boss Fager and its rising star Logan?
It certainly looks that way.
UPDATE: A CBS spokesperson today says the network is conducting a “journalistic review” of the Benghazi report. There's no indication the evaluation is being overseen by an outside, independent investigator -- as was the case with the National Guard review -- or whether the results of the review will be made public.