We saw the mistake, we’ve heard the apology--so now what will CBS News be telling us next?
“Admitting the mistake is no small thing, and rare enough in broadcasting,” said media ethicist Thomas Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute--one of several journalists along with a crisis communications expert who weighed in on the Tiffany Network’s latest ordeal. “It was an acknowledgement of error, but this didn’t create clarity. What was wrong? Why was that confusion created? Why does this matter? So what? And I don’t think CBS has met that test.”
60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan--who figuratively donned a hair shirt on Friday’s CBS This Morning and again on the 45-year-old magazine show’s Sunday broadcast --finds herself, along with the entire news division, at the center of an ugly flap.
Over the past week, CBS News executives have been defiant, then defensive, and finally remorseful, over Logan’s blockbuster report on last year’s U.S. embassy deaths in Benghazi, Libya, which was marred by a hoax: Namely, State Department security contractor Daryl Davies, who starred in Logan’s Oct. 27 segment under the pseudonym “Morgan Jones,” lied and lied about his activities on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, when ambassador Chris Stevens and three other embassy staffers were killed in a terrorist attack on the Benghazi diplomatic outpost.
Davies claimed in a riveting narrative (since deleted from the 60 Minutes web site) that he was smack-dab in the middle of the al Qaeda-inspired attack, scaling walls and rifle-butting evildoers, and that he later viewed the ambassador’s charred body at a local hospital. The crux of Davies' assertions—which were promptly condemned by supporters of former Secretary of State and once-and-future presidential contender Hillary Clinton--was that embassy protection was negligently inadequate, despite the frequently-voiced qualms and fears of Ambassador Stevens and others.
Indeed, Davies had just written a page-turner about his alleged experiences, The Embassy House: The Explosive Eyewitness Account of the Libyan Embassy Siege by the Soldier Who Was There, published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, a CBS subsidiary that in recent days has been forced to retract the book. (That was another embarrassment for CBS News, which initially forgot to mention the corporate tie-in and ultimately apologized for that lapse as well.)
Because, as it happens, hardly any of it was true.
Unlike nine years ago--when CBS appointed an independent panel to carry out an exhaustive public investigation of anchor Dan Rather’s reliance, a week before the 2004 election, on apparently forged documents to question President George W. Bush’s military service record—the network has resisted calls to conduct a similar process in this case. One salient difference from the 2004 experience is that nine years ago, the network was being targeted by an organized campaign by conservative activists; this time, the attackers are largely liberal bloggers and press critics like David Brock of Media Matters.
“It’s a lot safer pissing off the left than pissing off the right,” said a veteran journalist with hard experience in these issues. “The left raps your knuckles, and the right cuts off your hand and serves it to you for lunch.”
In this case, Logan’s report has been cited repeatedly by Republican office holders intent on holding President Obama and Hillary Clinton accountable for the disaster in Benghazi. Presumably CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, who is also executive producer of 60 Minutes, is quietly attempting to get to the bottom of the latest failures in judgment and journalistic practice (CBS won’t say), but that would be tantamount, in some ways, to investigating himself.
“It’s really easy to say—so I will say—it would be wonderful if CBS would do a full-fledged inquiry on how this happened,” said New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann, former dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism. “On the other hand…the answer seems pretty obvious to me, and I don’t know if you need to have a giant inquiry. The reason these things happen is that these kinds of reports are like in the Olympics when the diver does the dive with the higher degree of difficulty in hopes of getting the better score. And you’re either going to win the gold medal or be bumped from the competition if you screw up. That’s kind of how investigative reporting with sensational findings works. You’re either going to win a duPont Award or you’re going to be completely disgraced.”
Lemann suggested the solution is for CBS News to recalibrate its “risk-to-reward ratio” for sensational reports, and put in place a more rigorous, and inevitably more time-consuming, system of vetting sources. “It’s similar to Dodd-Frank,” he said, referring to the 2010 legislation designed to manage and reduce risk in the financial markets. “The way to lower the risk is inevitably also to lower the reward. It might be a hot story, and you think a competitor is also working on it, but you still take a week to be extra-cautious, even though somebody else might get there first…If you dial up the risk, you dial up the reward. But if you dial up the risk, you’re going to get caught sometimes.”
Crisis communications expert Allan Mayer, a former senior editor at Newsweek magazine, advised CBS to be more transparent in its response to Logan’s error. “We always want people to apologize when they’re wrong, but when it comes down to it, people care more about the future than they do about the past—and apologies are about the past. What people want to know is, ‘OK, you feel badly about what you did, but what are you going to do so that I don’t have to worry that you’re going to do this again?’ And that’s what CBS has not provided.”
Mayer cited two instances as models of how corporations can successfully defuse a catastrophic mistake by public disclosure. In 1982, after seven people died from taking cyanide-laced Tylenol, the pain-reliever manufacturer addressed the fallout very openly, making regular announcements concerning the investigation of what went wrong and the process by which it was redesigning Tylenol’s packaging to prevent a recurrence of criminal tampering. In 1981, after The Washington Post returned the Pulitzer Prize for a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that turned out to have been entirely fabricated, the paper published a 13,800-word narrative, sparing no one, of precisely how the bogus story made print, who was to blame, why, and what would be done about it.
“That’s the model that CBS needs to follow,” Mayer said. “To take the attitude that we don’t owe people more than an apology, I think, is delusional and self-destructive. Of course, never underestimate the ability of people to persuade themselves that they don’t have to do things they don’t want to do.”