November 26, 2013

“60 Minutes” reporter Lara Logan (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

Today, CBS News distributed a summary of findings from an internal investigation into the discredited Oct. 27 “60 Minutes” report on Benghazi. The investigation was conducted by Al Ortiz, executive director of standards and practices at CBS News, and the findings addressed the various red flags that “60 Minutes” failed to heed in featuring the testimony of Dylan Davies, a security contractor in Benghazi at the time of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on U.S. interests in the Libyan city.

The document cited 10 discrete issues with the Benghazi story.

Lara Logan, the correspondent on the story, and the segment’s producer, Max McClellan, are taking leaves of absence following the breakdowns.

Five core realities about this whole thing:

1) CBS News and “60 Minutes” might as well be on different planets. For CBS News, Benghazi represents the folly of firewalls. Right after the Benghazi attack itself, “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft asked President Obama how he viewed the tragedy. “Do you believe that this was a terrorist attack?” asked Kroft.

President Obama pretty well dodged the question, refusing to label it terrorism. Here’s how he responded:

OBAMA: Well, it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans. And we are going to be working with the Libyan government to make sure that we bring these folks to justice, one way or the other.

Trouble was, the public didn’t find out about the president’s response for weeks, until just two days before Election Day — long after it might have affected the course of the campaign. Somewhere between “60 Minutes” and the rest of CBS News, the Kroft-Obama exchange got lost.

As for the current “60 Minutes” Benghazi crisis, the Oct. 27 broadcast centered on Davies’s account of his activities on Sept. 11, 2012, a version of events that was pocked with inconsistencies: He told “60 Minutes” that he was doing heroic things on the ground, mixing it up with the invaders; he told others that he was marooned in his beachfront villa. In his writeup of the reporting scandal, Ortiz wrote this: “[T]he wider reporting resources of CBS News were not employed in an effort to confirm [Davies's] account. It’s possible that reporters and producers with better access to inside FBI sources could have found out that Davies had given varying and conflicting accounts of his story.”

In other words, break down that wall.

2) Leaves of absence are worthless. Suspensions, leaves of absence, forced sabbaticals — whatever you call them, they’re empty and symbolic PR stunts, designed to quell public outrage, always to the detriment of the organization. They do nothing more than further shake the confidence of someone who screwed up, while marooning the employee at home — far away from the training and support that would best prevent a repeat failure.

Following their bad reporting, Logan and McClellan are now taking an extended holiday break, during which they’ll do … what? Sit at home and stew? Catch up on some reading? Gossip about how certain other colleagues should also be doing forced leisure?

In circumstances such as this one, news organizations need to make a call as to whether the breakdowns constitute a firing offense. If they do, then fire people, as CBS News did following the Dan Rather non-expose on the National Guard service of President George W. Bush. If they don’t warrant dismissal, then work these people harder. Start on the next story. Raise the standards.

It’s possible that the leaves of absence are but a first step toward the dismissal of Logan and McClellan. If that’s the case, though, doesn’t CBS News have enough information right now to take that step? A better bet is that the two will quietly slink back into the office in the near future. Is that really accountability?

3) Where’s Jeff Fager’s leave of absence? Check out Jeff Fager’s bio on the CBS News Web site. Not only is he chairman of CBS News, but he’s also executive producer of “60 Minutes,” a difficult duality whenever trouble bubbles up from the set of the country’s most influential TV newsmagazine. In such circumstances, it’s ideal to have a chairman who’s free of any direct, working-level attachment to the work of “60 Minutes.”

Perhaps the most embarrassing part of this Benghazi meltdown was Fager’s own conduct. After The Washington Post exposed the inconsistencies in the testimony of Davies, Fager defended the reporting. Ortiz explains the whole sequence of events in his findings:

After the story aired, the Washington Post reported the existence of a so-called “incident report” that had been prepared by Davies for Blue Mountain in which he reportedly said he spent most of the night at his villa, and had not gone to the hospital or the mission compound. Reached by phone, Davies told the 60 Minutes team that he had not written the incident report, disavowed any knowledge of it, and insisted that the account he gave 60 Minutes was word for word what he had told the FBI. Based on that information and the strong conviction expressed by the team about their story, Jeff Fager defended the story and the reporting to the press.

Of all the journalism committed here, this sample was the smelliest. In the face of conflicting evidence, Fager relied on the source of the conflicting evidence to validate his unit’s reporting.

Sounds like grounds for a leave of absence!

3) Don’t rely on the executive director of standards and practices to go after the chairman. Ortiz’s findings are strong and well-stated. They show that CBS News is committed to looking into its reportorial shortcomings and pointing out where mistakes and omissions occurred. They also show that you don’t take on the boss in public.

4) It’s hard to bail on an investigation that lasted nearly a year. Courtesy of Ortiz, we find out that, “From the start, Lara Logan and her producing team were looking for a different angle to the story of the Benghazi attack.”

They surely succeeded.

When “60 Minutes” first released its investigation on Benghazi, it seemed to think it had something groundbreaking. It even published one of those self-congratulatory, chest-beating Q&As about how much effort and resources it had pumped into the project. “Dozens and dozens and dozens” of people were interviewed for the special report, said McClellan. All kinds of government reports and congressional testimony went into the thing. Yet it tipped over on a pebble: The key witness was wobbly.

The Ortiz inquest doesn’t fully explain why “60 Minutes” didn’t more thoroughly vet Davies. In previous statements, Logan and others in the organization have said that many things about him “checked out.” So perhaps their skepticism antennae weren’t activated.

Another possibility is that they were too deep into the story. They were too invested in it. They’d spent a year reporting it and couldn’t possibly abandon it.

5) Optics. Any reason why CBS News didn’t wait one more day to drop this news? You know, when the entire East Coast is parked on I-95?

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