November 8, 2013

“60 Minutes” correspondent Lara Logan this morning delivered a clinic on how a media organization should correct the record on faulty reporting: “The most important thing to every person at ’60 Minutes’ is the truth, and today the truth is that we made a mistake. And that’s very disappointing for any journalist, it’s very disappointing for me. Nobody likes to admit that they made a mistake, but if you do, you have to stand up and take responsibility and you have to say that you were wrong, and in this case we were wrong. We made a mistake,” Logan said today on “CBS This Morning.”

And with those words, about 10 tons of pressure drained from the Manhattan offices of “60 Minutes.”

Ever since the famed investigative news magazine on Oct. 27 aired a look-back on the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on a U.S. diplomatic installation in Benghazi, Libya, media critics and Media Matters have been pushing the organization to account for a mammoth discrepancy. In that broadcast, “60 Minutes” presented a lengthy interview with a security official, Dylan Davies, who said he had witnessed some of the dramatic events that night.

As the battle at the compound raged, Davies said, he scaled a 12-foot wall and pounded a terrorist with the butt of his rifle. He was identified in the report as “Morgan Jones,” the same pseudonym that he used for his book on the attacks, Embassy House (written with Damien Lewis). As he told “60 Minutes,” his other main exploit that night was appearing at a Libyan hospital and viewing the dead body of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, who was among four U.S. personnel to die in the clash.

Too good to check? Not according to Logan, who said in this morning’s contrite appearance that “60 Minutes” had investigated Davies’s bona fides. The crew determined that Davis “was who he said he was,” said Logan. “He gave us access to communications he had with U.S. government officials,” continued Logan, adding that government reports and congressional testimony also buttressed Davies’s contentions. “Everything checked out,” she said.

And then everything collapsed. Following the “60 Minutes” piece, The Post’s Karen DeYoung reported that Davies had issued a report to his supervisors stating that he’d spent “most” of the night in his beach hut. Roadblocks had kept him from reaching the compound, he wrote in the report. Logan this morning conceded that “60 Minutes” hadn’t known about the incident report.

The Post’s report debunking the “60 Minutes” account was published last Thursday. Given its seismic implications for the “60 Minutes” story, you might suppose that the news magazine would have issued an immediate release expressing alarm at the disclosure and vowing to investigate. It didn’t. As the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone has pointed out, its first impulses went in the other direction:

The news organization’s stonewalling got some support from Davies himself, who told the Daily Beast, essentially, that the story he gave to “60 Minutes” was the real one. Believe that one. The stuff he’d told his supervisor in the report was not true, for the following reason:

In his interview with the Daily Beast, Davies said the version of the events contained in the incident report matched what he told his supervisor, called “Robert” in his book, who is a top Blue Mountain Group executive. Davies said he lied to Robert about his actions that night because he did not want his supervisor to know he had disobeyed his orders to stay at his villa.

Even after that troubling wrinkle, “60 Minutes” professed to have been “proud” of its story.

Pride comes before the fall, as they say. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that Davies had “told the F.B.I. that he was not on the scene until the morning after the attack.” His account to the FBI, noted the Times, was consistent with the report to his supervisors.

Game over. “60 Minutes” had to confess. Its week-long stonewalling proves the cardinal rule that media apologies come only in the face of overwhelming evidence. Give Logan & Co. credit for the tone and comprehensiveness of this morning’s presentation — and subtract a bit, too, for not moving sooner. News organizations tend to ditch their legendary nimbleness when it comes to coming clean.

Benghazi was a tragic and shameful night for the country, and a troublesome story for the news media. It combusted in the midst of a presidential campaign, with all the attendant distortions and agendas. Opponents of President Obama demanded accountability, not only for how the administration allowed all this to happen (a real scandal) but also for how it sought to explain the events of that night (not much of a scandal).

The rush to add a little extra sauce to what was a patent breakdown led various news organizations in unproductive directions. In a resounding story on Oct. 26, 2012, Fox News alleged a full docket of wrongdoing, a lot of which has crumpled under scrutiny. The Erik Wemple Blog wrote a massive series on this story alone. Later, the Weekly Standard, CBS News and ABC News published stories on the government’s attempts to hammer out post-attack talking points on Benghazi. They relied on snippets and summaries of e-mail exchanges. When the White House later released the whole packet of e-mails, the stories lost their punch.

The lesson from all of this: When it comes to Benghazi, trust no one.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.