'60 MINUTES' RETRACTS STORY ON BENGHAZI

Staff Writer
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c.2013 New York Times News Service

Lara Logan was scheduled to deliver a report on Sunday’s “60 Minutes” about disabled veterans who climb mountains. Instead, she appeared in front of the newsmagazine’s trademark black backdrop and issued an apology.

Logan said that Dylan Davies, one of the main sources for a 2-week-old story about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, had misled the program’s staff when he gave an account of rushing to the compound the night the attack took place. “It was a mistake to include him in our report. For that, we are very sorry,” Logan said.

The apology lasted only 90 seconds and revealed nothing new about why CBS had trusted Davies, who appeared on the program under the pseudonym Morgan Jones. Off-camera, CBS executives were left to wonder how viewers would react to the exceptionally rare correction.

While veteran television journalists spent the weekend debating whether the now-discredited Benghazi story would cause long-term damage to the newsmagazine’s brand, some media critics joined the liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America in calling for CBS to initiate an independent investigation of missteps in the reporting process.

However, the apology was deemed inadequate by a wide range of commentators Sunday night. Craig Silverman, of the correction blog Regret the Error, predicted that it would not “take the heat off CBS News.”

“Aside from the fact that it struck a very passive tone and pushed the responsibility onto the source, Dylan Davies, it said nothing about how the show failed to properly vet the story of an admitted liar,” Silverman said in an email. “There are basic questions left unanswered about how the program checked out what Davies told them, and where this process failed.”

Logan has said that a year of reporting informed the Oct. 27 story, which was Davies’ first interview. Some of Logan’s conclusions still hold up to scrutiny — for example, that “contrary to the White House’s public statements, which were still being made a full week later, it’s now well established that the Americans were attacked by al-Qaida in a well-planned assault.”

But enough doubts have been sown about Davies’ account of being an eyewitness that CBS apologized on Friday, scrubbed the story from its website (and the “60 Minutes” Twitter feed) and prepared Logan’s on-camera statement Sunday night. (Davies’ account included him hitting an al-Qaida fighter in the face with the butt of a rifle and seeing the dead ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, at a hospital.)

Parallels have been drawn between this case and CBS’ flawed 2004 report on President George W. Bush’s time in the National Guard. Each time, the news division adopted a defensive crouch when advocates first started to question the stories.

But the political backdrop has changed significantly this time. In 2004, there were accusations of “liberal bias” and unrelenting coverage of the controversy on conservative websites, driven by the right’s long animus toward Dan Rather, the correspondent on the Bush story, and the implication that he was trying to hurt the president’s re-election chances.

This time, conservatives initially trumpeted the “60 Minutes” report: The morning after it was broadcast, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News that he planned to block all administration nominations until Congress was granted access to all of the survivors of the attack. (On Sunday, Graham stood by his threat despite CBS’ retraction.) At the same time, questions about Davies and his account were immediately raised, by both liberal activists and independent reporters.

Media Matters, which has sought to defend the Obama administration from what it calls the “Benghazi hoax” promoted by conservative media, noticed an early red flag on Oct. 28, when a Fox News correspondent said that Davies had asked to be paid for a previous interview. (Fox News declined to pay, but has acknowledged using him as a source; Fox says it stands by its reporting on Benghazi.) At Media Matters, the “60 Minutes” story became “Priority No. 1, 2 and 3,” said Bradley Beychok, the group’s president.

As advocates and journalists pressed CBS, the network showed scant interest in revisiting the issue. Logan repeatedly vouched for Davies, saying in an interview last week that she had full confidence in him, even after the veracity of his account had been challenged by a conflicting report presented to the State Department by his employer.

Logan’s confidence clearly influenced her bosses; so did a pervasive belief inside CBS News that Obama administration officials were trying to undermine Davies and, by extension, the entire “60 Minutes” report.

CBS’ retraction came only after the network confirmed a New York Times report in which government officials said that Davies gave a different account of events to the FBI than he gave to CBS.

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Overall, cries of “conservative bias” are not nearly as resonant as cries of “liberal bias” were in 2004, and conservative media outlets have largely ignored the CBS retraction in recent days. For those reasons, among others, “60 Minutes” is unlikely to take as severe a hit as “60 Minutes II,” the spinoff program that showed Rather’s National Guard report, took in 2004.

Over the weekend, CBS staff members expressed confidence that the damage to “60 Minutes,” while certainly the worst it has had to endure in the decade since Jeff Fager, the CBS News chairman, succeeded Don Hewitt as the executive producer, would not be enduring. One reason is the deep reserve of goodwill the program has built up both with viewers and in journalistic circles.

But the staff members also agreed that the program would be helped by that absence of a cause to inflame right-wing media voices, as well as by the belated effort to apologize.

A more specific and perhaps more serious problem, said one staff member with a long tenure on the program, who asked not to be identified offering an internal analysis of the report’s effect, was the damage done to the reputation of the report’s correspondent, Logan.

A youthful star of a newsmagazine with few other young faces, whose previous work has earned accolades from Fager, she is now the public face of what Fager called “as big a mistake” as “60 Minutes” has made in its 45-year history. Critics of the Benghazi story have accused Logan and her producers of having a conservative bias; as evidence, some have pointed to an October 2012 speech by Logan that called in passionate terms for U.S. revenge after the Benghazi attack.

The episode has also drawn attention to the unusual autonomy that “60 Minutes” enjoys within CBS — and given ammunition to those inside the network who believe the newsmagazine should not be so detached from the rest of the news division. One longtime layer of oversight — a senior executive in charge of standards who screened every story before broadcast — was removed after Fager was promoted to chairman of the news division.