CBS News' extended refusal to specifically address questions at the heart of its controversial 60 Minutes Benghazi terror report ran counter to the counsel CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager has given in recent years about the importance of journalists admitting their mistakes and being transparent in the process.
In public speeches, Fager, who also holds the title of 60 Minutes' Executive Producer, has repeatedly insisted that for the good of a free press, journalists must acknowledge errors when they are made and must be honest with news consumers when doubts arise about their work. For the simmering Benghazi controversy however, CBS News embraced a mostly non-responsive strategy, exactly the opposite of what Fager has preached.
The problems with 60 Minutes' politically charged Benghazi report were self-evident in terms of the witness the program featured. Yet CBS News executives refused for a full week to address the central issue regarding the fact that that witness had told two contradictory tales about the Benghazi terror attack and what he did that night. Instead officials, including Fager, continued to publicly laud its Benghazi work (the news chairman remained "proud" of it, as of November 6), despite the fact that, as one veteran journalist put it, the report represented a "serious problem" for the network.
It was only when the New York Times last night reported that there were even deeper discrepancies in the report that Fager and CBS conceded mistakes were made with regards to its star witness. It wasn't until today's edition of CBS' This Morning that the network's Lara Logan finally admitted that the nearly two-week-old report had been a "mistake" and explained that CBS News had failed to fully vet that witness.
CBS's defensive, slow-footed response was difficult to match up with Fager's previous pronouncements. "When you do make a mistake, boy oh boy own up to it," Fager told Arizona State University journalism students in 2011. "Go out of your way to own up to it." He added: "Credibility is what we sell."
That same year while addressing the City Club of Cleveland, Fager stressed that "one of the most serious threats to a free press is a big mistake without an apology or a correction."
More advice from Fager [emphasis added]:
If you've made a mistake you better recognize it, and tell people you recognize it, and start looking into what went wrong and be very transparent about that.
In both of those cases, Fager was speaking about the lessons CBS News learned in the wake of the 2004 controversy regarding the 60 Minutes II report about President Bush and his service in the Texas Air National Guard and the disputed documents correspondent Dan Rather used. Fager chastised the CBS team that produced that story, claiming it set out to prove a story it wanted to tell and when that happens journalists "tend to leave any mitigating factors out because they might work against your theory, and only disaster can come from that."
Yet critics suggest that's precisely what happened with the 60 Minutes Benghazi report. The program's failure to alert viewers that its witness had given conflicting account of the terror attacks appeared to be a prime example of journalists withholding "mitigating factors."
The chilling details have already faded from view, but the terror that unfolded at the Los Angeles International Airport last week is worth recalling. That's when unemployed motorcycle mechanic Paul Ciancia marched into Terminal 3, pulled out an assault weapon and opened fire. Targeting Transportation Security Administration employees, Ciancia repeatedly shot Geraldo Hernandez at point-blank range, and quickly shot two other agents and a nearby passenger.
With police in pursuit and panicked passengers fleeing the scene or taking cover in stores and restaurants, Ciancia moved towards the airport gates, still firing his gun, where he was shot four times, subdued and arrested.
Hernandez died at the scene.
Sadly, the details of the LAX shooting rampage can easily be swapped out for equally chilling accounts of other recent gun rampages all across the country. The public eruptions of gun violence where gunmen target strangers have become an unwanted hallmark of the most heavily armed country in the world.
What made Ciancia's deadly shooting anything but random was the fact that according to news reports Ciancia, perhaps thinking he'd die at the scene of his crime, brought with him a one-page, handwritten manifesto in which he described himself as a "pissed-off patriot" and affirmed he had "made a conscious decision to kill" multiple TSA employees.
He wrote that he wanted to "kill TSA and pigs" in order to "instill fear in your terrorist minds." The note included references to the Federal Reserve and "fiat currency," issues popular with anti-government conspiracists. Ciancia signed the declaration with the letters "NWO," in an apparent reference to New World Order, another conspiracy that fears a totalitarian one-world government.
Also, Ciancia's note reportedly referred to former Homeland Secretary chief Janet Napolitano as a "bull dyke" and contained the phrase "FU Janet Napolitano."
So a "pissed-off patriot" brought a .223-caliber assault rifle and a duffel bag filled with hundreds of rounds ammunition to an airport to kill federal government workers (TSA employees) and perhaps local law enforcement officers ("pigs"), and the story's met with something akin to a newsroom collective shrug and days later is virtually ignored?
Yes, the awful event was big news while it was breaking and while the news helicopters were circling near LAX. These types of deadly shootings are often widely hyped while they're producing compelling television images and the fear of the unknown permeates. But as has become the media tradition, once the latest shooting stops and the gunman is apprehended or killed, and if the victims number one or two, and especially if there is no Islamic terrorism angle, the story immediately recedes with little additional coverage or consideration for what prompted it.
On September 10, 2004, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather dedicated five minutes of the telecast to address the brewing controversy around a 60 Minutes II report he had aired two days earlier. Featuring disputed documents from a former commander in the Texas Air National Guard, the 60 Minutes II report detailed the lingering questions about President Bush's service in a coveted state-side Guard unit during the height of the Vietnam War and how, despite his no-show service, Bush was awarded an honorable discharge.
Within hours of the report, conservative bloggers raised doubts about the documents' validity. The next day, mainstream outlets began airing their own doubts. With the network's credibility on the line, less than 48 hours after the initial report, Rather and CBS responded with a detailed defense of their reporting on its evening newscast, even though the Guard report aired on a different program, 60 Minutes II.
Rather's public defense was just one of many, high-profile actions the embattled network took in an effort to answer critics at the time. By September 20, CBS stopped defending the Guard report. It apologized for airing the segment and announced the creation of an outside panel to investigate what had gone wrong in the reporting process. In the end, four senior CBS producers were let go, 60 Minutes II was canceled, and Dan Rather was soon out as the Evening News anchor. (Rather still stands by his memo reporting.) However, CBS' independent review could not determine if the controversial Guard documents were forged. It did conclude however, there was no evidence the Guard story was driven by partisan considerations inside CBS.
CBS's frantic corporate response to the Guard controversy (which included blatant kowtowing to its partisan critics; see more below) stands in stark contrast to the network's utterly passive, non-response to the widening controversy surrounding the heavily-hyped 60 Minutes report that aired on October 27 about the terrorist attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi in 2012.
That report has been plagued by problems, including obvious conflicts of interest and the more recent revelation that its star witness told contradictory tales about the terror attack and what he did as it unfolded that night.
The difference in the two crisis responses is striking in part because the underlying Guard story that CBS told about Bush failing to serve his duty has been proven to be true: In the spring of 1972, with 770 days left of required duty, then-Lt. Bush unilaterally decided that he was done fulfilling his military obligation and walked away from the Guard. That means CBS could have omitted the disputed documents from its Guard report and still told an accurate story about Bush's non-service.
But CBS's dubious Benghazi report revolved around already debunked allegations about why no U.S. military forces from outside Libya were sent to save the Americans at the besieged Benghazi compound. In other words, CBS's witness controversy is attached to an-already inaccurate Benghazi report, which makes the recent 60 Minutes' transgression more serious than the one that triggered the Guard frenzy.
Journalism veterans tell Media Matters that CBS must address the glaring problems with its Benghazi report and the growing newsroom scandal. Yet the silence persists. So it's worth pondering why CBS responded so quickly, and energetically, to conservative critics in the wake of the Guard story, and why CBS feels comfortable ignoring those who point out gaping holes in its politically charged Benghazi report.
If CBS appointed another review panel this week, it would have a lot to examine.
Republicans in the U.S. Senate made history this week when they successfully filibustered the nomination of Rep. Melvin Watt (R-N.C.) to become director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Watt received 56 Senate votes, four short of the 60 necessary to end the filibuster.
The move represented the latest round of raw, extremist obstructionism that Republicans have proudly practiced for the last five years, particularly when it comes to mounting extraordinary efforts to block presidential appointments that in the past were considered to be routine.
The historic element of the Watt rejection was that throughout American history it has been virtually unheard for a sitting member of Congress to be filibustered -- to be denied the courtesy of a final vote -- when selected by the president to fill an administration position. Prior to this week's partisan blockade of Watt, a Congressional rejection like his hadn't happened since before the Civil War, in 1843.
That important historical context should have been included in every story about the Watt filibuster, but it wasn't. That's not surprising considering the Beltway press corps seems to have made a conscious decision during the Obama presidency to omit virtually all context with regards to the Republicans' continued radical behavior as they cling to filibusters to methodically block, stall and reject most White House policy proposals, as well as countless nominations.
The pliant coverage over the years has likely only enabled Republicans to push ahead with their corrosive strategy, knowing there's certainly no downside with regards to adverse media attention. After all, Republican moved to recently shut down the government, yet lots of journalists suggested the radical, destructive move was because "both sides" just couldn't agree, essentially blaming Democrats for Republican extremism.
Note that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently announced he was going to block all Obama nominations until he got more answers about the 2012 terror attack in Benghazi. Although as CNN's Jeffrey Toobin noted, Republicans block Obama picks as a matter of general principle, so it's not like Graham even needs a stated reason for the obstruction.
Watt wasn't the only presidential pick rejected by Republicans on October 31. They also blocked Patricia Millett, who was nominated to fill one of three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Despite the fact Millett had previously served as an assistant solicitor general, and represented the administration before the Supreme Court 32 times, under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Republicans denied her the right to an up or down vote.
It's telling that Republicans barely even bother to give reasons for the filibusters any more, and that the press doesn't find that odd.
The rocky rollout of Obamacare has prompted commentators to attack the president and his team for having three years to plan for the launch and still not getting it right. That's a legitimate critique as problems persist. But the same can be said for an awful lot of reporters doing a very poor job covering Obamacare. They also had three years to prepare themselves to accurately report the story.
So what's their excuse?
The truth is, the Beltway press rarely bothers to explain, let alone cover, public policy any more. With a media model that almost uniformly revolves around the political process of Washington (who's winning, who's losing?), journalists have distanced themselves from the grungy facts of governance, especially in terms of how government programs work and how they effect the citizenry.
But explaining is the job of journalism. It's one of the crucial roles that newsrooms play in a democracy. And in the recent case of Obamacare, the press has failed badly in its role. Worse, it has actively misinformed about the new health law and routinely highlighted consumers unhappy with Obamacare, while ignoring those who praise it.
As Joshua Holland noted at Bill Moyers' website, "lazy stories of "sticker shock" and cancellations by reporters uninterested in the details of public policy only offer the sensational half of a complicated story, and that's providing a big assist to opponents of the law."
It's part of a troubling trend. Fresh off of blaming both sides for the GOP's wholly-owned, and thoroughly engineered, government shutdown, the press is now botching its Obamacare reporting by omitting key facts and context -- to the delight of Republicans. It's almost like there's a larger newsroom pattern in play.
And this week the pattern revolved around trying to scare the hell out of people with deceiving claims about how Obamacare had forced insurance companies to "drop" clients and how millions of Americans had "lost" their coverage.
The latest Washington Post poll released this week surveying the race for governor in Virginia found what virtually every poll has this season: Democrat Terry McAuliffe has amassed surprisingly large lead in a "purple" state and in a race that was supposed to have been a toss-up between the two parties.
McAuliffe's impressive campaign run represents what appears to be a certain Democratic victory and may be a bellwether for the 2014 midterm elections. But as a longtime confidante of Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe's imminent win can also be seen as yet another political triumph for the former president and first lady.
Yet that's not how the October 24 issue of The New Republic played the unfolding campaign. In a cover story that stressed McAuliffe's ties to the former president (he's "the consummate Washington insider, Clinton vintage"), the Beltway magazine presented an amazingly snide and insulting portrait of the Democratic candidate.
Depicted as shallow, dishonest rube who fit right in with his Clinton pals, the derogatory language used to describe McAuliffe was startling: He represents "so much of what some people find gross about the subspecies" of the Washington insider; the "shamelessness," and the fact he's "so ardent in his lack of earnestness." He's a man who "managed to sell a used car - himself - to the voters of Virginia."
Imagine the tone of the coverage if the Clinton intimate were losing the Virginia race?
The New Republic's nasty piling-on of McAuliffe is just more evidence that the press, once again, may be starting to declare something of an open season on the Clintons, and those who inhabit their political universe. As Hillary Clinton segues from Secretary of State to possible presidential candidate, the Beltway media, after focusing on the rise of Barack Obama and his administration for the last six years, is also transitioning.
Unfortunately, instead of new insights and fresh perspectives, we're seeing a new generation of writers adopt the same tired, cynical tropes that the Clintons, and news consumers, have been subjected to for two decades running: Bill and Hillary are phonies who keep fooling the American public. They're relentlessly selfish people, obsessed with lining their own pockets and the source of non-stop "personal dramas."
Of course, the "drama" surrounding the Clintons often springs from the media's endless obsession with the couple, married with today's click-bait business model for news.
When he announced hearings this week into the troubled launch and implementation of President Obama's health care reform, Rep. David Camp (R-MI), Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, demanded to know why "after spending over $600 million" the online health care exchange portal, healthcare.gov, doesn't work properly.
In light of the site's systemic failures, that bulging nine-figure price tag ($634 million, to be exact) has produced endless guffaws within the conservative media, where the figure has been adopted as evidence of a policy debacle.
"Who pays $634 million and has three years and screws it up that bad?" asked Fox News' Sean Hannity on October 18. Added Rush Limbaugh: "That website, by the way, the original projected cost: $93 million. The end cost: $643 million. I kid you not."
Wow, $550 million in cost overruns for healthcare.gov since 2010 when the health care reform law was passed?
The life of the $600 million figure appears to be the latest example of how misinformation is fermented within the right-wing media and then adopted as quasi-policy by the Republican Party. After all, Rep. Camp is holding a hearing specifically to determine why the government's $600 million health care website doesn't work, even though the site didn't cost $600 million.
Just days after the government shutdown came to an end, and with public opinion polls continuing to show that the Republican Party paid a grave price for its radical and shortsighted maneuver, Meet The Press host David Gregory wanted to discuss President Obama's failure to lead.
Pointing to a mocking National Journal piece by Ron Fournier, that was headlined "Obama Wins! Big Whoop. Can He Lead?" Gregory pressed his guests about when Obama would finally "demonstrate he can bring along converts to his side and actually get something meaningful accomplished." Gregory was convinced the president had to shoulder "a big part of the responsibility" for the shutdown crisis, due to the president's failed leadership. New York Times columnist David Brooks agreed Obama is at fault, stressing "The question he's never answered in all these years is, 'How do I build a governing majority in this circumstance?'"
Gregory, Brooks and Fournier were hardly alone in suggesting that Obama's a failed leader. Why a failure? Because a Democratic president beset by Republicans who just implemented a crazy shutdown strategy hasn't been able to win them to his side.
In her post-shutdown New York Times column, Maureen Down ridiculed Obama, claiming he "always manages to convey tedium at the idea that he actually has to persuade people to come along with him, given the fact that he feels he's doing what's right." (i.e. Obama's too arrogant to lead.)
And in a lengthy Boston Globe piece last week addressing Obama's failure to achieve unity inside the Beltway, Matt Viser wrote that Obama "bears considerable responsibility" for the Beltway's fractured, dysfunctional status today (it's "his biggest failure") because "his leadership style" has "angered countless conservatives, who have coalesced into a fiercely uncompromising opposition." That's right, it's Obama's fault his critics hate him so much.
Talk about blaming the political victim.
As an example of Obama's allegedly vexing "leadership style," Viser pointed to the fact Democrats passed a health care reform bill without the support of a single Republican. That "helped spur the creation of the Tea Party and a "de-fund Obamacare" movement," according to the Globe. But that's false. The ferocious anti-Obama Tea Party movement exploded into plain view on Fox News 12 months before the party-line health care vote took place in early 2010. Obama's "leadership style" had nothing to do with the fevered right-wing eruption that greeted his inauguration.
The GOP just suffered a humiliating shutdown loss that has its own members pointing fingers of blame at each other. So of course pundits have turned their attention to Obama and pretended the shutdown was a loss for him, too. Why? Because the Beltway media rules stipulate if both sides were to blame for the shutdown that means both sides suffered losses. So pundits pretend the crisis highlighted Obama's glaring lack of leadership.
But did it? Does that premise even make sense? Isn't there a strong argument to be made that by staring down the radicals inside the Republican Party who closed the government down in search of political ransom that Obama unequivocally led? And that he led on behalf of the majority of Americans who disapproved of the shutdown, who deeply disapprove of the Republican Party, and who likely did not want Obama to give in to the party's outlandish demands?
Doesn't leadership count as standing up for what you believe in and not getting run over; not getting trucked by hard-charging foes?
How out of whack, at times, was CNN's coverage of the GOP's radical move to shut down the government and to flirt with defaulting on American's debt? So puzzling that when news broke on October 16 that a deal would be struck to avoid a catastrophic default, CNN's Ashleigh Banfield turned to her guest, Democratic Congressman James Clyburn, and blamed him for the two-week shutdown [emphasis added]:
BANFIELD: Forgive me for not popping the champagne corks, because while we're celebrating this breaking news that there's a deal, it's just a temporary deal. We're still nowhere near a solution to the crisis that the United States of America finds itself in because of people like you and your other colleagues on the Hill.
It's well known that when confronted with political turmoil created by Republicans, the Beltway press prefers to blame both political parties. (i.e. "Congress" is dysfunctional!) That way journalists are not seen as taking sides, and they're inoculated from cries of liberal media bias. But if ever there were a test case for when it was plain both sides were not to blame, the shutdown was it.
Engineered entirely by Republicans, Democrats like Clyburn were forced to become spectators as they watched a civil war unfold within the Republican Party between its far-right Tea Party allies, who insisted on adopting a radical strategy, and the rest of the GOP. Or course, several prominent Republican politicians pinned blame squarely on their colleagues for the recent mess.
The shutdown was a crisis orchestrated by Republicans. Period.
Congressional Democrats played virtually no role in the procedural sabotage, except as shocked observers. Yet there was Ashleigh Banfield blaming a Democrat (as well as all Democrats and Republicans) for causing so much turmoil inside Washington, D.C. The skewed commentary fit in with the fact that CNN regularly suggested President Obama was a central cause of the tumultuous shutdown because he wasn't willing to just sit down and work out a deal with his political foes.
CNN occupies an important place within the media landscape. Priding itself on a down-the-middle approach to news and political commentary, the channel helps shape conventional wisdom and sets the common boundaries for news events. But by so effortlessly adopting the Republican spin that Obama and Democrats shouldered all kinds of blame for the shutdown, CNN became part of the media problem.
Over the weekend, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the architect of the Republican effort to shut down the federal government, spoke at a Washington, D.C. rally, hosted by activists who were angry that the nation's memorials had been closed as part of the government shutdown. Sarah Palin also addressed the crowd.
Soon after Cruz spoke, and after Palin handed out small American flags, organizers turned to Freedom Watch founder Larry Klayman. Best known in recent years for his evangelical pursuit of birtherism and all half-baked conspiracies related to the debunked claim that Barack Obama wasn't born in America and that he's an undercover Muslim, Klayman told cheering activists in Washington that the president "bows down to Allah." He announced that Obama's "not the president of 'we the people, he's a president of his people," and that Obama needed to "put the Quran down."
The Obama's-a-foreigner ugliness fermented by Klayman was soon showcased after shutdown protesters marched to the White House where, according to the conservative Washington Times, the crowd numbered "about 200," including curious onlookers. Outside the White House gates, one conservative protester waved a Confederate flag, and when local police arrived to secure the area they were greeted with calls of "brown shirts," while one demonstrator commented the scene "looks like something out of Kenya."
Note also that the recently failed right-wing truck rally in D.C. was organized by a proud online birther, and that attendees to the far-right Value Voters Summit in Washington over the weekend were invited to hear addresses by birther exhibitionists Joseph Farah and Jerome Corsi.
If anyone's surprised that a proud and unapologetic birther (in 2013!) was front-and-center at a right-wing anti-Obama rally this week, or that the birther charade plays a central role in government shutdown activism, then they haven't being paying close enough attention to the conservative movement in America.
And that includes most members of the Beltway press corps.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow recently addressed the birther issue and stressed the importance of it in terms of understanding today's radical Republicans in the House:
MADDOW: They have a different sense of what is normal. They have a different sense of what counts as reasonable politics in America -- and failing to appreciate that, means that we fail to develop reasonably accurate expectations for their behavior. And that has become really important.
That failure to appreciate helps explain why the shutdown to defund a three-year-old health care law remains so perplexing to most outside observers. Viewed through the prism of traditional partisan politics, it doesn't make any sense. It's a shutdown about nothing. It's a shutdown devoid of content or purpose. (Defunding was never a realistic outcome.) It's certainly a shutdown that was executed without any clear goals by Republicans, or anything that even resembled an endgame strategy.