BOB GARFIELD: Last week, we saw a dramatic CBS exclusive unravel.
[60 MINUTES CLIP]:
LARA LOGAN: We end our broadcast tonight with a correction on a story we reported October 27th, about the attack on the American special mission compound in Benghazi, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
BOB GARFIELD: That's correspondent Lara Logan. On October 27th, 60 Minutes aired her interview with security contractor Dylan Davies, using the pseudonym “Morgan Jones,” who was in Libya during last September's assault on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. What is no longer in doubt is that the Benghazi episode was a coordinated attack by Islamic militants on the anniversary of 9/11. It was not, as President Obama first seemed to characterize it, a spontaneous protest over an inflammatory anti-Muslim video that had recently surfaced.
The attack also laid bare a series of management and leadership failures at the State Department but no internal investigation, congressional inquiry or journalistic enterprise has located anything more sinister. Still, for the past year, Benghazi has been used as a political bludgeon by conservative media and House Republicans, who have convened hearings, attacked administration figures and entertained elaborate conspiracy theories, mostly alleging a politically-motivated cover-up by a president seeking reelection.
The GOP-fanned smoke had yielded no actual fire and had largely dissipated when Davies showed up on 60 Minutes. He recounted his heroics amid the chaos and lack of trained guards at the compound, an account which impeached the administration's version of events.
LARA LOGAN: Morgan Jones scaled the 12-foot high wall of the compound that was still overrun with al Qaeda fighters.
MORGAN JONES: One guy saw me. He, he just shouted. I couldn’t believe that he’d seen me, ‘cause it was so dark. He started walking towards me.
LARA LOGAN: And as he was coming closer?
MORGAN JONES: As I got closer, I just hit him with the butt of the rifle in the face.
LARA LOGAN: And?
MORGAN JONES: Oh, he went down, yeah. I could l – like a stone.
LARA LOGAN: And no one saw you do it.
MORGAN JONES: No.
LARA LOGAN: Or heard it?
MORGAN JONES: No, there was too much noise.
BOB GARFIELD: Pretty hair-raising but, as it turns out, Davies got nowhere near the Embassy that night. His personal heroics were an invention, along with the rest of his story. Shortly after the report aired, the Washington Post reported that Davies’ employer denied his presence at the compound. Then the New York Times spoke to the FBI, which also said Davies was elsewhere that night. All the while, liberal media monitoring group Media Matters hammered at CBS for answers. The network had a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. Once again, Lara Logan.
LARA LOGAN: The most important thing to every person at 60 Minutes is the truth, and the truth is we made a mistake.
BOB GARFIELD: Fair enough but if truth is important to CBS, how could it have aired such politically explosive allegations, without corroboration, by a man about to release a book about Benghazi? Why did CBS producers not ask themselves the cardinal question, “Who benefits?” TOM ROSENSTIEL: All you know from the correction is, we did something wrong, we make – we made a mistake. We’re not gonna tell you anything more about it.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute on NewsHour this week.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: They didn't make clear in that correction what they had done that created a misimpression, what information he'd conveyed that confused people or fed conservative critics of this.
BOB GARFIELD: The media-watching universe was uniformly dissatisfied with CBS's correction. Press critic Jay Rosen wryly called it minimalist. Apologies are nice, but the blogosphere demanded truth and reconciliation and, in its absence, commenced to filling in the blanks. For instance, could it be that the “who benefits” question is an uncomfortable answer? Davies’ book was to have been published by Simon and Schuster, a subsidiary of - what do you know, [LAUGHS] CBS. Tom Rosenstiel.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: You don't know what pressures are inside a company when one side of the company is publishing the book. You’ve got to be extra vigilant under those circumstances, so you don’t put yourself in this kind of situation.
BOB GARFIELD: Weirdly, CBS News has been down this path before. Back in 2004, Dan Rather fronted an investigative piece that apparently documented young George W. Bush's avoidance of Vietnam-era military duty in the Texas Air National Guard. In that case, there were multiple sources, but the most prominent among them was a set of documents presented as Exhibit A, documents that turned out most likely to have been forged. When their veracity was questioned, CBS News dug in its heels. Only after weeks of unanswered questions did Rather and company acknowledged that they - didn't have the goods. His mea culpa sounded like this.
DAN RATHER: Also, I want to say personally and directly, I’m sorry.
[END OF CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Heads rolled, including Rather’s, this after the network brought in an independent panel, headed by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, to document the producers’ series of journalistic failures, some of incompetence, some of dishonesty. It makes instructive reading, to this day, the anatomy of a fail. CBS News released a statement on Wednesday promising a, quote, “journalistic review” but neglected to comment on what form that might take.
These exercises aren’t merely academic and they aren't merely crisis PR management. In her most recent column, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan demonstrated the toll of insufficient outrospection. She took it upon herself to do what editorial management never had, reconstructing the paper’s 2004 decision to withhold, for 13 months, James Risen’s and Eric Lichtblau’s scoop about warrantless wiretapping by the Bush administration. Apart from the civic consequences of leaving a nation in the dark, that hesitation came to affect the Times’ own newsgathering. Leaker Edward Snowden said that the Times’ decision led him this summer to bestow his explosive NSA snooping revelations on Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian, instead of the New York Times. That decision is one the Times may well think about the next time around because in order to learn from our mistakes, we must first have the courage to say them out loud.