The CBS memos from Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News, and Al Ortiz, executive director of standards and practices, suggest that correspondent Lara Logan had a preconceived bias that prevented her from fully vetting her source before airing his story about the attack on the Benghazi embassy compound that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
But the leaked memos don’t explain why Logan’s superiors allowed her to pursue the story in the first place and why others at CBS didn’t compensate for her potential blind spots.
CBS announced the unspecified leave of absence for Logan and her producer Max McClellan. The Huffington Post ran memos from both Fager and Ortiz. Ortiz offered a summary of CBS’ findings that included these points:
- It was possible to know that Dylan Davies’ account to the FBI was inconsistent with what he told CBS.
- Logan and McClellan did not try to tap into the wider resources at CBS to get at the FBI information.
- That Logan had good sources for her claim that Al Qaeda was behind the attack but that she didn’t cite them in the story.
- That Logan’s public assertion more than a year earlier that the U.S. government was misrepresenting the threat from Al Qaeda indicated that she had created a conflict that should have precluded her from further reporting on the story.
Ortiz doesn’t specifically say that Logan’s bias is to blame, but he strongly implies it. The summary also doesn’t say why Logan and McClellan didn’t do more to check out Davies’ story, how they explain that failure, or why the broader system within CBS didn’t kick in to rescue the reporting team from their blind spots.
Fager states in his memo, “I pride myself in catching almost everything, but this deception got through and it shouldn’t have.”
It’s a bit unsatisfying that CBS can’t answer these questions. A news organization can’t possibly remove the blind spots from every staff member. Instead, the key is to create a system that identifies biases and compensates for them. It’s not so bad that Logan had a preconceived notion of what went wrong. What’s bad is that she didn’t use her extensive reporting skills to confirm what she thought were facts. And what’s worse is that the newsroom systems of editing and fact-checking didn’t kick in to force her to do so.
Logan’s original “60 Minutes” report had two significant elements. The first part of the report reviewed previous assertions that Stevens and his staff had expressed concerns over the security situation in Benghazi. The second element was Davies’ unique (and questionable) account of the attack that night.
We now know that Davies’ dramatic account of the attack is at best suspicious. But we don’t know whether to dismiss his and others’ claims about what happened before the attack. Because Davies’ turns out to be such an unreliable source, and because the political rhetoric around the attack and the U.S. military’s response to it has been so explosive, it is virtually impossible for the average citizen to sort out what happened and who was or wasn’t doing their jobs.
CBS’ high-profile failure on this story further clouds an already murky conversation in the public marketplace of ideas.
This is the real consequence of reporting failures. In a politically charged debate, where opinion peddlers are constantly making assertions about what happened and who was responsible, the possibility of grasping the truth slips away for the average citizen.
Correction: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect spelling for Max McClellan’s name.