What Would Dan Rather Do? With Benghazi Debacle, 60 Minutes Faces Another Crisis of Credibility

On September 10, 2004, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather dedicated five minutes of the telecast to address the brewing controversy around a 60 Minutes II report he had aired two days earlier. Featuring disputed documents from a former commander in the Texas Air National Guard, the 60 Minutes II report detailed the lingering questions about President Bush's service in a coveted state-side Guard unit during the height of the Vietnam War and how, despite his no-show service, Bush was awarded an honorable discharge.

Within hours of the report, conservative bloggers raised doubts about the documents' validity. The next day, mainstream outlets began airing their own doubts. With the network's credibility on the line, less than 48 hours after the initial report, Rather and CBS responded with a detailed defense of their reporting on its evening newscast, even though the Guard report aired on a different program, 60 Minutes II.

Rather's public defense was just one of many, high-profile actions the embattled network took in an effort to answer critics at the time. By September 20, CBS stopped defending the Guard report. It apologized for airing the segment and announced the creation of an outside panel to investigate what had gone wrong in the reporting process. In the end, four senior CBS producers were let go, 60 Minutes II was canceled, and Dan Rather was soon out as the Evening News anchor. (Rather still stands by his memo reporting.) However, CBS' independent review could not determine if the controversial Guard documents were forged. It did conclude however, there was no evidence the Guard story was driven by partisan considerations inside CBS.

CBS's frantic corporate response to the Guard controversy (which included blatant kowtowing to its partisan critics; see more below) stands in stark contrast to the network's utterly passive, non-response to the widening controversy surrounding the heavily-hyped 60 Minutes report that aired on October 27 about the terrorist attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi in 2012.

That report has been plagued by problems, including obvious conflicts of interest and the more recent revelation that its star witness told contradictory tales about the terror attack and what he did as it unfolded that night.

The difference in the two crisis responses is striking in part because the underlying Guard story that CBS told about Bush failing to serve his duty has been proven to be true: In the spring of 1972, with 770 days left of required duty, then-Lt. Bush unilaterally decided that he was done fulfilling his military obligation and walked away from the Guard. That means CBS could have omitted the disputed documents from its Guard report and still told an accurate story about Bush's non-service.

But CBS's dubious Benghazi report revolved around already debunked allegations about why no U.S. military forces from outside Libya were sent to save the Americans at the besieged Benghazi compound. In other words, CBS's witness controversy is attached to an-already inaccurate Benghazi report, which makes the recent 60 Minutes' transgression more serious than the one that triggered the Guard frenzy.  

Journalism veterans tell Media Matters that CBS must address the glaring problems with its Benghazi report and the growing newsroom scandal. Yet the silence persists. So it's worth pondering why CBS responded so quickly, and energetically, to conservative critics in the wake of the Guard story, and why CBS feels comfortable ignoring those who point out gaping holes in its politically charged Benghazi report.

If CBS appointed another review panel this week, it would have a lot to examine.

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, knocked out a terrorist with his rifle butt, and later traveled across town to the Benghazi hospital to see Ambassador Chris Stevens' dead body.

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. 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 now claims 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 claims he was telling the truth on 60 Minutes

But how are viewers to know? And why weren't they made aware of the contradictory version of events that the witness has given about Benghazi? Was CBS aware of the flagrant contradiction and didn't tell viewers?  And if CBS wasn't aware, what does that say about the brand of journalism its reporters practice considering 60 Minutes  correspondent Lara Logan and her producer bragged that the Benghazi story was a year in the making and involved “dozens and dozens and dozens” of interviews?

Quite simply, how is it possible to spend a year checking out a story only to have it completely implode within five days of airing on CBS?

Keep in mind that on Fox News, reporter Adam Housley claimed that Davies asked for money in exchange for an interview. (Davies has since denied that claim.)  Foreign Policy reported that Davies' memoir is being published by Threshold Editions, a conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster, which is a part of CBS Corporation, which owns 60 Minutes. Yet that fact was not disclosed in the 60 Minutes story. Nor was the fact that the rights to Davies' book have already been sold to a Hollywood producer.

All in all, the 60 Minutes report can now be accurately described as a train wreck.

CBS's response since the deeply flawed report was aired? Silence punctuated by a boilerplate announcement that it stands by the story. (Actually, during last night's 60 Minutes telecast, three viewer letters were read on-air praising the report, one calling it “amazing.”) Contrast that with the all-hands-on-deck approach CBS took following its disputed Guard report from September 8, 2004:

September 9, 2004: A CBS spokesperson responded to early right-wing allegation by insisting, “As is standard practice at CBS News, each of the documents broadcast on '60 Minutes' was thoroughly investigated by independent experts, and we are convinced of their authenticity.” The statement added that CBS reporters had verified the documents by talking to unidentified people who saw them “at the time they were written.”

September 9: “CBS News released a statement yesterday standing by its reporting, saying that each of the documents ”was thoroughly vetted by independent experts and we are convinced of their authenticity." The statement added that CBS reporters had verified the documents by talking to unidentified people who saw them “at the time they were written.”

September 10: CBS released another statement: “CBS released another statement: ”This report was not based solely on recovered documents, but rather on a preponderance of evidence, including documents that were provided by unimpeachable sources, interviews with former Texas National Guard officials and individuals who worked closely back in the early 1970s with Colonel Jerry Killian....  In addition, the documents are backed up not only by independent handwriting and forensic document experts but by sources familiar with their content. Contrary to some rumors, no internal investigation is underway at CBS News nor is one planned. We have complete confidence in our reporting and will continue to pursue the story."

September 10: Rather's rebuttal aired on The CBS Evening News.  

September 11: The CBS Evening News aired an update about the memo controversy, which contained yet another statement from the network: “We believe the documents to be genuine. We stand by our story and will continue to report on it.”

September 14: CBS Evening News again revisited the story, reporting that in a radio interview Laura Bush suggested the disputed Guard documents were “probably” forgeries, while noting “CBS News continues to stand by its reporting.”

September 20: CBS News chairman Andrew Heyward issued an apology: “Based on what we now know, CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report. We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret.” Dan Rather added, “If I knew then what I know now -- I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question.”

September 20: CBS announced the creation of the review panel.

September 22. CBS announced Richard Thornburgh, who served as President George H.W. Bush's attorney general, and Louis Boccardi, former executive editor and CEO of the Associated Press, would led the review panel.

Incredibly, it was later discovered that CBS officials were so spooked by the conservative attacks on the network in 2004, that when it came to assembling its “independent” panel the network did the following:

*Included Rush Limbaugh, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and Matt Drudge on a list of possible review panel candidates.

* Conceded the list of panel candidates tilted towards the right in order to “open itself up to its harshest conservative critics and to ensure that the Panel's findings would be found credible.”

*Reached out to “GOP folks” prior to assembling its “independent” panel and took their temperature on who should oversee the work.

*CBS insiders were concerned that former GOP senator Warren Rudman would not “mollify” the network's right-wing critics; he was not selected for the “independent” panel.

Earlier this year in an interview with USA Today, CBS CEO Les Moonves reflected on his tenure at the network and 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.”

As 60 Minutes' Benghazi scoop continues to implode, the network has shown no such interest in protecting the integrity of CBS News.