behind the news

On the 60 Minutes/Benghazi debacle

Some systems worked, and some didn't
November 11, 2013

Two things are true about CBS News’ latest embarrassment over the egregious mistake it apologized for last night on its much-celebrated news show, 60 Minutes.

First, the media’s self-appointed accountability system worked. Second, CBS’s management failed 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan and made a particularly costly mistake.

Logan bravely went on CBS This Morning on Friday to eat crow and admit that the now-legendary show, which aired on October 27, should never have included security officer Dylan Davies’ self-serving account of the 2012 Benghazi, Libya attack that has turned out to be a sham.

“The most important thing to every person at 60 Minutes is the truth, and today the truth is that we made a mistake,” Ms. Logan said. Classy, Ms. Logan.

The apology was exactly what a news organization should do. But then, if 60 Minutes had thoroughly reported the story, it wouldn’t have to apologize.

60 Minutes producer Max McClellan, who worked with Logan, said that over the course of a year they had done “dozens and dozens and dozens [of interviews]. Over a hundred may sound goofy, but it is definitely in that category.” Yet they failed to include two key incident reports Davies gave his supervisor and the FBI that totally contradicted his heroic tale of scaling a 12-foot wall during the attack and butting a terrorist with his rifle.

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Davies’ memoir was published two days later by a CBS Corp. imprint, Threshold Editions, that specializes in conservative authors.

Two days after that, on October 31, Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung revealed that Davies had told his employer, the Blue Mountain Group, a private British security business, he never made it to the Special Mission in Benghazi the night of September 11, 2012 because he couldn’t get there.

Journalists questioned. CBS News stonewalled, sticking by its report. Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog group, dogged the story, demanding that CBS provide an explanation for the variation in accounts, even starting a petition. On its website today, there are dozens of stories about this issue.

CBS News officials dismissed deYoung’s piece, saying they knew Davies had told his bosses a different story, though they didn’t answer why that wasn’t included in the October 27 segment. They didn’t budge until a New York Times story, published online November 7, reported that Davies’ FBI account also didn’t match what he told Logan. Friday morning, Logan apologized, and then again last night.

The system worked. The reporting was deeply flawed, and then (not-so-quickly) fixed because other media organizations and critics forced CBS to be accountable.

But an internal system didn’t work. CBS News’ editors and top management appear to have not kept Logan in check, which is what all good editors, producers, and managers do to enthusiastic, passionate reporters who can, yes, get carried away on a story.

Never mind that this now appears CBS Corp, which owns CBS News and the imprint that published Davies’ book, ran a 12-minute infomercial for The Embassy House by Sgt. Morgan Jones (Davies’ pseudonym) and Damien Lewis. 60 Minutes neglected to include this obvious conflict of interest in the first piece, which has disappeared from the website.

In retrospect, was Logan the right person to do this story? In October 2012, she gave an oddly impassioned (for a reporter), speech to about 1,100 influential people at a Better Government Association annual luncheon in Chicago.

“Logan even called for retribution for the recent terrorist killings of Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and three other officials,” wrote Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington in her coverage of the luncheon. “Logan hopes that America will ‘exact revenge and let the world know that the United States will not be attacked on its own soil. That its ambassadors will not be murdered, and that the United States will not stand by and do nothing about it.'”

Seek retribution? Exact revenge? That may be the kind of language media activist Glenn Greenwald can fire off, but it isn’t what folks expect from a 60 Minutes correspondent. And it’s not what viewers should expect from Logan if she is going to report on Stevens and the highly charged political controversy surrounding his murder in Benghazi.

Adding to concern over Logan doing this story is that Threshold Books, which published The Embassy House, specializes in conservative nonfiction. Its authors are notable Republicans: Glenn Beck, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Lynne Cheney, Mary Cheney, and Sean Hannity. Republican consultant Mary Matalin is its chief editor. None are friendly to the Obama administration, which has taken considerable heat from the GOP for Benghazi.

Right after the flawed episode aired, Republicans seized on this as another example of why the Obama administration must give more details of what happened that night. US Sen. Lindsay Graham threatened to hold up all Obama administration nominations until all Benghazi survivors appear before Congress.

The fallout from publicizing Davies’ fabricated account is huge. Logan and 60 Minutes have a black eye that won’t soon be forgotten. Threshold Editions will lose money because it had to pull Davies’ book off shelves.

“The route Threshold is taking means destroying copies in stores, in wholesalers, and in your own inventory,” said book agent Eric Nelson, formerly of John Wiley & Sons. “Everything about this book will likely have to be written off as a loss. Even aside from the advance, which the publisher probably wouldn’t sue the author to recoup, this could be hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Slate got bloodied too. It published an excerpt from Davies’ book and then had to admit they don’t believe it’s true.

Publishers are never going to routinely factcheck books, but if TV networks are going to promo a book, they definitely should.

Alicia Shepard is former NPR ombudsman and is training Afghan journalists on corruption reporting for Internews, an NGO that helps to develop local media around the world