The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sharyl Attkisson’s compelling gripe against CBS News over Benghazi coverage

So much of Sharyl Attkisson’s new book, “Stonewalled,” defies independent judgment. She writes about all manner of computer intrusions — possibly by government actors — yet the analysts who examine her machines appear pseudonymously or are constricted by confidentiality arrangements. She also writes about how CBS News has stifled reporting about big corporations and other hot-button issues — allegations that are common fare among investigative reporters.

Into another category falls Attkisson’s long riff on the great CBS News Benghazi scandal. Remember this one? Just days before the November 2012 presidential election, CBS News released videotape of President Obama in an interview with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.” That video was by then nearly two months old, having been shot on Sept. 12, just after the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that claimed the lives of four U.S. personnel. When asked whether he believed Benghazi was a terrorist attack, the president said it was “too early to know.”

Perhaps that exchange wasn’t explosive on Sept. 12. But as the fall wore on, it packed more and more punch. As this blog has written, the issue of how Obama described the Benghazi attack in its immediate aftermath peaked around Oct. 16, 2012, which is when Obama had that famous exchange with challenger Mitt Romney over whether he’d acknowledged Benghazi as terrorism. Or, as many critics were alleging, he danced around the issue to defend his record in fighting terrorism.

Right on the heels of that Obama-Romney face-off would have been an ideal time for CBS News to have dropped the video of Kroft and the president talking about whether Benghazi was terrorism. But the network didn’t do it.

It’s here that Attkisson’s insider perspective helps. She writes that even before that Oct. 16 debate, she had received a call from a White House official alleging that the president had called Benghazi a “terrorist attack” in a Rose Garden statement on Sept. 12. Attkisson: “I had no idea that the question of how the administration portrayed the attacks — and whether it was covering up the terrorist ties — would emerge as a touchstone leading up to the election. But the White House already seemed to know.” In fact, Obama did refer to “acts of terror” in that Rose Garden address.

A few days after the Obama-Romney debate, writes Attkisson, the question of how the president termed the attacks is still hot. CBS Evening News, writes Attkisson, “wants the controversy addressed and, preferably, put to rest.” She notes that the script from the broadcast in question features these words: “Obama stepped into the Rose Garden and spoke of the killing of four Americans as if it were a terrorist attack. ‘No act[s] of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,’ Obama said in his Rose Garden remarks.”

In her own reporting, Attkisson faced the same corporate line on the Obama-Benghazi issue. As she’s working on a story about the attacks, this happens: “So for the second time in five days, New York has us insert the same line and Obama sound bite in an Evening News story to imply that the president had called Benghazi a terrorist attack the next day. It seems as though they’re putting a lot of effort into trying to defend the president on this point,” reads “Stonewalled.”

Later Attkisson finds out from a colleague what Obama had told Kroft in that Sept. 12 “60 Minutes” interview. “Holy s[—],” exclaims Attkisson’s colleague.

“Now, eight years after Rathergate, I feared that we’d once again mischaracterized facts in advance of a presidential election to hurt a Republican. We not only had stood by silently as the media largely sided against Romney, but we’d also taken an active part in steering them in that direction,” writes the author.

Here’s a key detail, per Attkisson: “60 Minutes” had e-mailed the entire Kroft transcript to the “CBS Evening News” office in New York “the very day it took place,” she writes. That means that the top folks at CBS News “had to have known” about the Obama sound bite throughout the key parts of the election, according to Attkisson. Or perhaps they didn’t read it.

When CBS News did publish the Kroft-Obama exchange, its news value had already wilted. “By and large, the whole episode was mostly forgotten,” notes Attkisson, who confronted CBS News boss David Rhodes:

A few weeks later, I met with David Rhodes during one of his regular visits to Washington. I asked for an update on the internal investigation. For me, there was no point in pulling punches. Speaking of the ‘Evening News’ managers who I felt had been a party to covering up the Obama bite, I said, ‘They’re dishonest, they’re unethical, and they’re not very smart. I don’t trust them, I don’t respect them, and I can’t work for them.”

Rhodes, writes Attkisson, assured her that a “full investigation was underway. Or was going to be conducted in the future. I wasn’t entirely sure.” She writes that she never heard anything more about the matter.

CBS News declined to comment on this awful episode.