It happened in 2004 with the Air National Guard story that ended Dan Rather’s career. There too the network refused to concede that there were genuine problems with the story until it was forced to by others.
“Whenever legitimate questions are raised about our reporting, we check them out. That is what we are doing in this case. When we know more, we will tell you.”
Tell me: What is so hard about that? It’s 30 words CBS News never managed to say in its week from hell that will peak during ’60 Minutes’ tonight with an on-air apology for getting duped by a source who gave CBS viewers an eyewitness account of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, even though he told the FBI and his employer that he wasn’t on scene that night.
I will be watching. Let me tell you what I will be watching for. CBS will no doubt apologize for inadequate vetting of “Morgan Jones,” whose story should not have been trusted. It will say that it should have viewed his story more skeptically and done more reporting. It will say that it should have been clearer that its book division had given the same source a contract and paid an advance.
But will CBS apologize for its reckless denials from Oct. 31 to the day the story collapsed? It should, but probably it won’t. I don’t make a lot of predictions, but I will here: Tonight’s apology by CBS will not deal in any serious way with its misguided response to the very legitimate questions that were raised about its Benghazi report. If I am wrong, that will be good news for journalism at CBS and I will happily report it in an update here. (I was not wrong. Update here.)
Meanwhile, here is what I see.
But in a written account that Jones, whose real name was confirmed as Dylan Davies by several officials who worked with him in Benghazi, provided to his employer three days after the attack, he told a different story of his experiences that night.
Immediately, the CBS report is in deep trouble. And anyone with a clear mind can see that. Except the people at CBS. When your key source tells two different stories, something is seriously amiss. The next day, the network should have said: “Whenever legitimate questions are raised about our reporting, we investigate.” Instead, Kevin Tedesco, a spokesman for 60 Minutes, tells the Post: “We stand firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday.” Why?
2. On November 1, Media Matters asks journalism observers with no known hostility to CBS or any political stance on the Benghazi events to comment. They state the obvious. ”I don’t see any way that 60 Minutes would not need to offer an explanation,” says Alex S. Jones, former media beat reporter for the New York Times, now director of the Shorenstein Center on The Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “This definitely needs explaining.” In a letter to CBS, Media Matters calls for a retraction of the report.
3. On November 2, the Daily Beast reports on its interview with Dylan Davies, in which he claims that a first-person incident report written in his voice is not his work. He’s never seen that document, he says. He also says that he lied to his employer “because he did not want his supervisor to know he had disobeyed his orders to stay at his villa.”
So now the key source in the CBS report has admitted to lying about the events in question, but we are supposed to believe that to CBS he told the truth and he told the truth in the book for which he was paid an undisclosed sum by a CBS subsidiary. Also we know from an earlier report on Fox News that a Fox reporter had stopped talking to the same source when he asked for money. (Also see this on Fox News and Benghazi.) All of these facts are clear warning signs, making “We stand firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday” appear unwise in the extreme.
3. What CBS says in response to the Daily Beast report is… nothing. As if there was nothing to address. This was false. Huffington Post reporter Michael Calderone was trying to get answers to some extremely pertinent questions:
Did “60 Minutes” know Davies had told his employer that he wasn’t at the compound during the attack? And if “60 Minutes” was aware of Davies’ previous statement, how did the program vet his new account, given that no other witnesses saw him there? Does “60 Minutes” have evidence to be confident that Davies’ dramatic second account is accurate?
4. CBS stays silent about those issues for two more days. Then it decides to speak. But instead of answering Calderone’s questions, or at least saying, “When legitimate questions are raised about our reporting, we check them out…” which would have been the cautious, responsible and sane thing to do, it decides to raise the stakes by defending its work. Thus Lara Logan tells the New York Times: “If you read the book, you would know he never had two stories. He only had one story.” This is bizarrely at odds with what Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post uncovered. Logan then attributes the criticism of her reporting to the intensely politicized atmosphere surrounding the events in Benghazi. But again: this does not address what Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post uncovered. Logan and CBS do admit to one mistake: not acknowledging that a division of CBS, Simon and Schuster, was publishing the “Morgan Jones” book.
Their story is in deep trouble from the existence of two conflicting accounts from the same source, who is an admitted liar, but CBS people are acting like none of this happened, or that no one knows about it, or that only partisan critics care. Why?
5. The next day things get stranger and more denialist. The executive producer of 60 Minutes, Jeff Fager, who is also the chairman of CBS News — two roles that in this instance conflict, though no one at CBS notices — tells the Huffington Post that he is a.) proud of the network’s reporting on the controversy and b.) confident that it will hold up.
“We spent more than a year reporting our story about the attack on Benghazi, which aired on Oct. 27, speaking with close to 100 sources in the process,” Fager says, seemingly unaware that these facts make his situation worse. (You spent a year on the story and never learned that your key source either lied to you or lied to his employer?) Like Lara Logan’s comments to the Times, Fager’s words are completely unresponsive to the actual trouble the story is in. Why? (On that, see Calderone’s report from Nov. 8.)
6. The next day, Nov. 7, the denialism falls apart, as the New York Times reports this:
Dylan Davies, a security officer hired to help protect the United States Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, gave the F.B.I. an account of the night that terrorists attacked the mission on Sept. 11, 2012 that contradicts a version of events he provided in a recently published book and in an interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes.”
This forces CBS News to say on its website what it should have said on October 31. “We are currently looking into this serious matter to determine if he misled us, and if so, we will make a correction.”
7. Finally forced by other news organizations to confront what they did not want to see, CBS starts caving. On November 8, Lara Logan appears on the CBS morning news show to apologize. (Video.) “So here’s what we know,” writes Kevin Drum of Mother Jones.
Davies never told Logan about the incident report. He never told the co-author of his memoir about the incident report. When the content of the report was revealed, he invented an entirely implausible story about lying to his supervisor in the report because he respected him so highly and didn’t want him to know that he’d disobeyed orders not to approach the compound. And yet, in a story that should have set off all sorts of alarms in the first place, this still didn’t set off any alarms for Logan. She continued to defend Davies and her reporting until news emerged yesterday that the incident report matched what Davies had told the FBI in a debriefing shortly after the attack.
Exactly. On the same day CBS takes down the video of the Benghazi story, leaving only an error message where the clip had been. Helpful! And Simon and Schuster announces that it is withdrawing the book from stores.
8. Then yesterday the conflict of interest that Jeff Fager has as 1.) the executive in charge who would have approved the final cut of the Benghazi story and 2.) the head of the CBS news division, who is supposed to worry about the entire news organization’s reputation more than any individual or show… that conflict comes through in startling fashion via this story in the Washington Post. Give a listen:
CBS News’s chairman expressed disappointment and contrition Friday for a mistaken “60 Minutes” report about the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attacks, but he suggested the program and his network intended to move past the flawed story.
“Credibility is really the most important thing we have,” Jeff Fager, the head of the network’s news division and executive producer of the weekly newsmagazine, said in an interview. “Did we let people down? Yes. Do people expect us to get it right? Of course they do. Do they expect us to be perfect? I don’t think so. When you come forward and admit a mistake, people will understand.”
Notice: He did not say “we’re going to get to the bottom of this, and find out how it could happen.” Rather, they’re moving on. And as the Post’s Paul Farhi wrote: “There were no indications Friday that anyone at CBS would be fired for the Benghazi report.” When you come forward and admit a mistake: is that what CBS did? Nope. It did exactly the opposite. It admitted there was a problem only after other news organizations brought the story forward. That statement alone should be enough to remove Jeff Fager from further decision-making about who is accountable for this debacle.
9. CBS was not just wrong, it was wrong about an explosive and highly contentious story in which extra care should have been taken because of the risk that a faulty report will be instantly politicized. This is exactly what happened, adding an extra layer of gravity to the situation. As the New York Times wrote on November 8:
The day after the CBS report, several Republican senators held a news conference, demanding that the administration allow congressional investigators to interview survivors of the Benghazi attack. In particular, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that he would block all administration nominations until it met the Republicans’ demands.
An update on this part of the story.
@jayrosen_nyu clearly felt that acknowledging review would give partisan critics more fodder. Not an excuse – an explanation.
— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) November 8, 2013
If Folkenflik is correct, this is worse because the “partisan” label is irrelevant to whether the questions that critics are raising deserve answers. Still, Media Matters is well aware of this discounting practice, and that is why they get the likes of Alex Jones and Marvin Kalb — figures they know journalists at CBS respect as “non-partisan” — to comment.
11. Threshold is the imprint of Simon and Schuster that signed “Morgan Jones” to a book contract. (“Threshold Editions is an imprint of Simon & Schuster that specializes in conservative non-fiction.”) Threshold is the imprint where Mary Matalin is an editor-at-large. Mary Matalin is a partisan political operative and Republican talking head— and now a book editor. If she was involved in the book deal, then she is mixed up with CBS’s collapsed story. Will this be a part of the on-air apology?
12. Lara Logan is not a View from Nowhere journalist. She has opinions on the Benghazi issue. She has spoken about them. In my view, that is not a crime. But it is certainly relevant in evaluating her performance on this story. (See Digby’s post for clips of Logan displaying her world view.) Will this be a part of tonight’s show? Will CBS say something like, “Viewers should have been told that correspondent Lara Logan has expressed strong opinions on the Benghazi story and what the United State should do in its aftermath…”? My prediction: no.
13. CBS has been through this before. It happened in 2004 with the Air National Guard story that ended Dan Rather’s career. There too the network refused to concede that there were problems with the story until it was forced to by others. There too it allowed its people to issue foolish statements of bravado as the story was crumbling. There too it blamed a partisan atmosphere for questions that any clear headed journalist would ask. (See my open letter to CBS News from 2005.) It did not learn enough from that debacle to avoid repeating the pattern. The signs are that it will not learn from this one.
Watch what CBS apologizes for Sunday night, and what it ignores in making a show of coming clean.
UPDATE, 8:45 PM, Nov. 10. My prediction proved accurate. 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. (See Dylan Byers in Politico for more on that.)
Here is how it went: “We end our broadcast tonight with a correction,” Logan said. She then summarized the Oct. 27 story and Davies role in it. “After our report aired, questions arose about whether his account was true when an incident report surfaced. It told a different story about what he did the night of the attack.” Logan said that Davies denied he had written that report, and insisted the story he told ’60 Minutes’ was accurate— and the same story he told the FBI. “On Thursday night, when we discovered the account he gave the FBI was different than what he told us, we realized we had been misled and it was a mistake to include him in our report. For that we are very sorry. The most important thing to every person at ’60 minutes’ is the truth, and the truth is we made a mistake.” The end. The video:
Final note for the night. 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.
UPDATE, NOV. 11. Last night the New York Times reported this:
The 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.
Well, there you have it. A thin and inadequate response — according to many critics and journalists and even people who used to work at CBS — will be the “last word.” Or will it? The pressures are still there. Witness:
“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.”
“’60 Minutes’ doesn’t need to apologize anymore. It needs to fully explain what went wrong.” Right. Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post goes through all the the unanswered questions in his excellent piece out this morning. “Sunday’s brief acknowledgment didn’t resemble a news program seriously trying to get to the bottom of how it got duped.”
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo asks a question that shows how inexplicable the decision-making was:
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?
Newsweek, Nov. 22: Lara Logan’s Mystery Man.
She’s a smart, tough, experienced reporter. And the producer and writers and reporters who helped her put this Benghazi story together are honored, respected professionals, many of whom have been covering the region for years. Whoever fooled them, whoever convinced them that al Qaeda orchestrated that attack on the U.S. embassy, had to be smart, incredibly persuasive and savvy about the media. And unquotable.
In other words, an intelligence source. And the person closest to Logan with those credentials is her husband. But he’s not talking.