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Did 60 Minutes do enough to regain viewer trust after false Benghazi report?

November 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
News program 60 Minutes admitted it made a mistake in a segment about the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi, which included false reports by a supposed eyewitness. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute and Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute join Jeffrey Brown to critique the reporting and response.

GWEN IFILL: Now: A media giant apologizes for getting its facts wrong.

Jeffrey Brown has that story.

LARA LOGAN, 60 Minutes: Tonight, you will hear for the first time from a security officer who witnessed the attack.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s how “60 Minutes” correspondent Lara Logan introduced her October 27 report about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The assault on September 11, 2012, left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. The White House initially portrayed it as a protest gone bad, but it turned out to be an organized attack by militants tied to al-Qaida.

REP. DARRELL ISSA, R-Calif.: Our goal in this investigation is to get answers.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the start, Republicans charged cover-up, and the administration denied it.

Then came the 60 Minutes broadcast that focused on warnings that went unheeded and the sequence of events that night. Former security contractor Dylan Davies, using the pseudonym Morgan Jones, told Logan he was there, fighting the attackers.

DYLAN DAVIES, former security contractor: One guy saw me. He just shouted. I couldn’t believe that he’d seen me because it was so dark. He started walking towards me.

LARA LOGAN: And as he was coming closer?

DYLAN DAVIES: As I got closer, I just hit him with the butt of the rifle in the face.


DYLAN DAVIES: Oh, he went down, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, within days, The Washington Post reported that Davies had told his employer at the time that he hadn’t been at the compound the night of the attack. And The New York Times later reported Davies had told the FBI the same thing.

CBS and Logan initially defended the story, but, on Sunday, they apologized.

LARA LOGAN: On Thursday night, when we discovered the account he gave the FBI was different than what he told us, we realized we had been misled, and it was a mistake to include him in our report. For that, we are very sorry.

JEFFREY BROWN: The initial report also never mentioned that Davies’ book on Benghazi was published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, a subsidiary of CBS. The publisher has now withdrawn the book.

And joining me to discuss the many criticisms surrounding the reporting and the response are Kelly McBride, a media ethicist from the Poynter Institute, and Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. They are co-authors of “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st century,” a collection of essays.

Well, Kelly McBride, let me start with you.

Putting it all together, where did CBS report — the CBS report go wrong, in your estimation? What are the main criticisms?

KELLY MCBRIDE, Poynter Institute: So, they didn’t vet Dylan Davies. There was a report to his employer that suggested that there was some discrepancy about his whereabouts on that night of the attack.

And they didn’t resolve those discrepancies to any satisfaction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom, what would you add?

TOM ROSENSTIEL, American Press Institute: Well, there were doubts about this.

There were conflicting documents about this. And you don’t know what pressures are inside a company when one side of the company is publishing the book. You have got to be extra vigilant under those circumstances, so you don’t put yourself in this kind of situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, explain — explain that a little bit, the book part of it.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, Simon & Schuster and CBS, owned by the same company, when you’re in that situation, it’s difficult because you can’t not accept books that your parent company is publishing. But you have got to be extra careful then, because you know that someone’s going to raise the possibility that there’s a conflict, that you’re promoting this book for commercial reasons. 

So your alarm system has to be even higher. Also, this is a story that you know is going to be politicized. The right was going to seize on this. And then you have got to mind your P’s and Q’s particularly well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kelly McBride, just to pick up on all of those things, the book and the lack of vetting, do we know — or what do we know a few days after the fact here about how it could have happened?

KELLY MCBRIDE: Well, that’s what we don’t know anything about.

CBS really hasn’t said specifically what went wrong. Is it because Simon & Schuster is part of the same company? Did they assume that Simon & Schuster had vetted this author and therefore they didn’t need to do the vetting? That would be a mistake, but it’s conceivable.

Did they — did they not do the vetting because they really believed that this story was true, that it was too good to be true, and so they just didn’t do the vetting because they really wanted it to be true? Or did they try and vet it, come up with — come up with enough reassurance that they felt like this story was OK, and then — and then get caught with their facts not straight after publication?

JEFFREY BROWN: And just to stay with you, how — what would you add or how concerned are you about the potential for conflict when you have got this reporting and a book at the same time?

KELLY MCBRIDE: Well, obviously, the report was timed to come out with the publication of the book.

And so you know that this source has a motivation to make the story as sensational as possible. He wants to sell books. I would think that that alone would inspire you, as a producer or reporter, to make sure that any discrepancies were resolved.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Tom Rosenstiel, there’s the what happened leading up to the report and then there’s the response, which has been very criticized, after things started to come out.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Right. Once — now, CBS deserves credit for admitting that they made a mistake. That’s unusual in broadcast.

We don’t see corrections on television in the course of normal activity. And mistakes are made all the time. But they claim, even in their own correction or acknowledgment, that their commitment is to the truth. What the truth means is clarity, understanding, what does the public need to know.

They didn’t make clear in that correction what they had done that created a impression, what information he conveyed that confused people or fed conservative critics of this. So all you know what the correction is, we did something wrong, we made a mistake, we’re not going to tell you anything more about it.

They also didn’t acknowledge the conflict of interest with the book, nor did they acknowledge that in the initial. So there isn’t really transparency here. And the problem for CBS is, when you make a mistake like this, you need to get out in front of it. You need to be your harshest critic, or people will keep pecking away at you, and there will be segments like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you’re giving them credit for — some credit for the apology, but it didn’t go nearly far enough?


Now, the irony here, the reason I don’t want to just pounce on CBS is, it’s not unusual for people to say, we’re not going to acknowledge anything and let it just go away. Once you acknowledge the mistake, you are inviting the scrutiny. And I don’t think it’s right for people to just denounce news organizations that acknowledge that they have made mistakes because the acknowledgment is inadequate, because too many news organizations will try and bury the mistake, gut it out and say, we did the best we could with the information we had at the time, and we’re not going to admit anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kelly McBride, what do you think about the response and the apology?

KELLY MCBRIDE: So, 60 Minutes is the gold standard of broadcast television.

And I think that that apology didn’t serve that audience very well. I think that they expect more. They are accustomed to getting very good journalism out of “60 Minutes.” And to the extent that Tom said most — it’s unusual in broadcast television to offer up a correction or an apology, sure, but once you have done it, yes, you need to say exactly what went wrong.

And I think you also need to tell people how you’re going to fix the problem, how you’re going to not let whatever it was went wrong happen again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kelly, there have been calls, of course, for further investigations, either internal or independent. What do you think should happen?

KELLY MCBRIDE: Well, whether they do an internal investigation or an independent investigation, like Tom said, transparency is really important here. You have to tell the public what specifically you find in your investigation.

Was it one individual who maybe wasn’t doing his or her job at a certain point in the reporting process, or was it an accumulation of small errors that led to this one big oversight that you didn’t vet your source?

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom, in the larger picture, you two both live in this world of media criticism, right, and oversight. But this world has changed fantastically in the last decade or so. Right?


And you have an old media organization, CBS, a 20th century news organization that aspires to these old standards of truthfulness and responsibility. And they’re caught here because now everybody can look at them, criticize them. And they’re not used to the openness of the new environment.

So they have got to be more open. They have got to be more transparent and they have got — their responsibility…

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, they must know the world they’re living in at this point, right?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, they do today.


TOM ROSENSTIEL: The other problem is, what they owe us, what they owe the public is assurances that there — that there isn’t something that — in their processes that will allow this to happen again.

They need to reassure the public, look, we understand what we did wrong, and it’s not — and — and we have learned from this and it’s not going to happen again. You can trust us in the future.

And that’s the test that they haven’t met yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom Rosenstiel, Kelly McBride, thank you both very much.

KELLY MCBRIDE: You’re welcome.