How the ’60 Minutes’ Benghazi debacle is similar, different than Rathergate

November 10, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

A lying source, a failure to properly vet him, and critical information that turned out to be unsupportable.

That appears to be the core of the “60 Minutes” Benghazi debacle that led to an on-air apology from correspondent Lara Logan and will be followed by another one on tonight’s broadcast.

It’s also a summary of events that could easily apply to the famed and discredited 2004 Bush National Guard records story aired by “60 Minutes II” just before that year’s presidential election.

The two incidents share some core characteristics, but they also differ in interesting ways. That they both happened at the same news organization — and under the “60 Minutes” banner — is notable in itself.

What’s Similar

Failure of a key source. Both times, there was a single source that set off the key reporting. In the Benghazi example, the show needed to verify that Dylan Davies is who he says he is and did the job in Libya he says he did. Then they needed to dig into his story about the attack and try to poke holes in it, or see if it could stand up.

With the National Guard story, there was a a single source, Bill Burkett, who provided documents that were the basis of the report.

Again, there is the matter of the source, Burkett, and the content he provided.

In both cases, the sources came with serious baggage, and the content they provided was even more dubious.

Not checking the source. Among a list of critical mistakes made back in 2004, the independent report commissioned by CBS News cited “The failure of 60 Minutes Wednesday management to scrutinize the publicly available, and at times controversial, background of the source of the documents, retired Texas Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett.”

With Davies, “60 Minutes” did some looking into their key source.

“We verified and confirmed that he was who he said he was,” Logan said this week.

They had the right guy in that he had worked where he said he did. But there’s one particularly troubling aspect of Davies: he is an admitted liar. (He was also a source who wanted money for his story, according to Fox News’ Adam Housley.)

Davies had set himself up well to fool “60 Minutes,” too. He knew that they could go to his employer and possibly get information from them about what happened the night of the attack, and whether Davies was at the compound as he claimed.

So he told CBS News that he’d lied to his employer. It seemed to make the folks at the broadcast think he was trustworthy for having told them he’d lied before.

“Always part of his narrative to us from the beginning was, ‘I told my boss that I didn’t go and I did,’” CBS News chairman and executive producer of “60 Minutes” Jeff Fager told Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post.

Then there was the question of the FBI, who had interviewed Davies after the fact about what happened that night. Perhaps Davies assumed the FBI wouldn’t just hand over details of that discussion to “60 Minutes” in order to help them check his story. Maybe he took a chance that “60 Minutes” would not ask the FBI. (Read Dylan Byers in Politico for a look at this FBI aspect.)

Or maybe his lies had gotten him far enough that he wasn’t making these kind of calculations anymore. After all, he had a book coming out that needed promoting…

Bottom line: If you have a source who tells you he is a liar, you better not think he won’t lie to you. Bulletproof everything he says. And if there are pieces you can’t confirm, you stack that up against the fact that he is a liar.

Not checking the information. “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 told Calderone.

Great. But did they see the FBI interview with Davies? No. Did they get the incident report filed with his employer? The answer also appears to be no. What about other people at the compound that night? Did anyone say they saw him there? No, because no one could have.

Talking to 100 people is great. But none of them had the information needed to verify Davies’ story. Or “60 Minutes” was asking the wrong questions.

Here are two similar problems highlighted in the commissioned report about what happened in 2004:

  • “The failure to find and interview the individual who was understood at the outset to be Lieutenant Colonel Burkett’s source of the Killian documents, and thus to establish the chain of custody;
  • “The failure to interview a range of former National Guardsmen who served with Lieutenant Colonel Killian and who had different perspectives about the documents”.

The “60 Minutes II” team did send the documents out to experts for independent verification. But they failed to “obtain clear authentication of any of the Killian documents from any document examiner …”.

Circling the wagons. The response came quickly both in 2004 and this week: we stand by our reporting. 

In the wake of reports that raised serious questions about Davies’ story, Fager told The Huffington Post they were “proud” of the piece, and stood by their sources.

It was even more so back in 2004. They held firm and rebutted criticisms on the “Evening News”.

For a full accounting of CBS News’ initial refusal to respond to the criticism this time, read Jay Rosen’s post from today, “Will CBS News apologize for the reckless denials before its Benghazi story collapsed?”

No internal accountability. Back in 2004, CBS News had no ombudsman, no internal watchdog that reported publicly. For a while, following a recommendation from the independent review of Rathergate, CBS ran a nice blog called CBS Public Eye. It aimed to bring transparency to the news operation, and a measure of accountability. It was killed off less than three years later.

As a result, there is no one at CBS News charged with getting answers to the most important questions, or anyone who can reasonably force the “60 Minutes” folks to address them. Fager has done some interviews, but he has not answered questions such as why the program wasn’t able to check what Davies was telling them against what he’d told his employer and the FBI.

What’s Different

Speed. The cycle was faster this time — less than a week from airing to apology.

In 2004, Dan Rather and CBS News president Andrew Heyward didn’t apologize until 12 days after the “60 Minutes II” story first aired. (Rather’s statement is here.)

Another element of speed was that the “60 Minutes II” report aired not long after the reporting team gained possession of the Killian documents.

That segment was rushed to air, as noted in the independent review of the debacle. It cited one major problem as, “The failure to have a vetting process capable of dealing effectively with the production speed, significance and sensitivity of the Segment.”

So, in 2004, CBS News rushed the segment to air, but dragged its feet — and made many inaccurate and misleading statements — when questions were raised.

This time, according to Fager, they took their time with the piece. (Remember: “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.”)

More time for reporting, but same result…

So, what made CBS News brass admit their mistakes faster? I think two factors played a role:

1. The big pushback came from media peers. Yes, Media Matters was on the story right away, and that’s somewhat similar to the kind of partisan criticism that occurred with the National Guard story. But this time the big blows came swiftly from two established news organizations: The Washington Post and The New York Times. If you’re Jeff Fager, the head of CBS News, and you see two major organizations like that punching big holes in your story, you don’t have much of a choice.

2. The elements in dispute were easier to check. The Killian documents required areas of expertise that are typically not present on a newsroom: signature analysis, document authentication, etc. In 2004, the CBS News view was: “You have your experts (on some silly blog), and we have ours.” This time, The New York Times reported that the FBI interview with Davies was not consistent with what he told “60 Minutes,” and inside CBS News, jaws drop. As Fager said: “So I think that, for us, that was the moment — and that was the moment we turned instantly. It wasn’t like we had a big debate about it. That for us said it all. We fully expected the FBI report would coincide with what he told us.”

Corporate tie-in. Davies’ book was being published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, a subsidiary of CBS. It’s common these days to see “60 Minutes” and other CBS programs give attention to upcoming titles from its sister company. 

Do you get on “60 Minutes” just because your book is with S&S? No. But it helps, and there is usually a basic (if not more specific) effort to make connections so that CBS programs can have a good crack at S&S authors. 

A major problem with the story is that the original broadcast did not mention the corporate tie-in. This is another thing “60 Minutes” has had to apologize for. 

The 2004 story had no such element.

The lack of disclosure in the broadcast plus the inadequate nature of the vetting done by “60 Minutes” creates the impression that, in spite of a year of reporting with 100 sources, this story was sloppily done in several ways.

What Remains

Tonight, we get another apology on the program. Will it detail efforts made to get information from the FBI? Will it explain how Davies was vetted, and where that process fell down? Will it explain why the network brushed off legitimate concerns before The New York Times report? And on and on…

There remain many unanswered questions. You have to be skeptical that “60 Minutes” itself is going to be the ones to ask and answer them after having thus far avoided them.

The clock is ticking…

Related: Mapes: Decision to Air National Guard Story Was Made by CBS Superiors, Including Heyward


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