Broadcast Producers: How to Avoid Your Own 60 Minutes Benghazi Book Debacle

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

60 Minutes' discredited Benghazi report, which relied largely on claims former security contractor Dylan Davies made in his since-retracted book, is a reminder that authors used as sources and news subjects need to be vetted, according to experienced broadcast news producers.

Several television and radio veterans who book authors for their shows or base news reports around them stressed the need to ensure subjects are credible and to conduct fact-checking and reviews of their work that goes beyond reading the publisher's press releases.

"Every time that there's some sort of scandal, the rules change and there's much more vigilance," Lynn Keller, a segment producer for NBC's Dateline, said about the 60 Minutes fallout. "I think we learn from others mistakes. I'm a big believer in a lot of oversight because one lack of oversight is too many."

Lauren Bright Pacheco, a freelance producer who has worked on several syndicated and cable shows, agreed.

"You have a series of steps where you are taking publicists' word for something, who is taking the publishers' word for something and there is not a lot of time to go back and thoroughly vet everything," she warned about relying on authors. "So much of journalism really does depend upon ethics, which are not too overly in play anymore. People will do whatever they can to tell their version of truth, including lie."

The concerns follow the recent controversy over an October 60 Minutes report that featured Davies' claims about witnessing the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Davies was also promoting his book, The Embassy House, which was published by a CBS division and promoted during the segment without acknowledgement of that financial tie.

After the story ran, CBS received harsh criticism following the revelation that Davies had previously told his employer and the FBI that he had not witnessed the attack. The multimedia company subsequently retracted both the segment and Davies' book, and CBS News is currently conducting an internal "journalistic review" of the segment. 

"When we do book interviews, we often find out what others are saying about that author and that book; that is standard practice," stressed Steve Scully, C-SPAN political editor and senior executive producer. "Anytime you do an interview with anyone, you've got to do your homework."

Danny Miller, co-executive producer of Fresh Air with Terry Gross on National Public Radio, said he probably would not have booked Davies on his show because he avoids books that have "self-serving motives."

"It would have been something we would have been wary of or very careful about given that it falls into the category of something we could not independently check and hadn't gone through the vetting of other media sources," Miller said, later adding, "We're very wary of anything that comes out that could be biased or self-serving, anybody who may be talking about an issue where they have self-serving motives. We tend to go to journalists to discuss issues, unless we go to something that is looking for a multiple perspective."

"When it comes to the non-fiction books we do," Miller explained, "we tend to stay away from books that are based on shocking revelations or something we cannot independently fact-check, the central contention of the book and we tend to go to journalists who are really established and have a reputation for independent reporting. The credentials are very important to us, especially when you get to controversial issues."

Emily Condon, production manager of This American Life, a former public television program now on radio, says producers need to rigorously fact-check books due to the lax standards in the publishing world. As Media Matters recently detailed, publishing houses typically rely on authors to ensure and vouch for the accuracy of their own work rather than seeking to verify their claims.

"This is something we talk about a lot around here, we are aware that a lot of books are not required to be fact-checked the same way that magazines or newspapers are," she said. "When we do a story that is largely dependent on a book, or any story ... we do independently fact-check everything."

This American Life had its own controversy in 2012 when it had to retract a story about performer Mike Daisey, who created a one-man show about visiting a factory in China that makes Apple products. In the monologue-style show, Daisey was found to have fabricated some of his personal experiences. When This American Life discovered the fabrications, it pulled the original show from its website and devoted an entire program to correcting the report, explaining it, and apologizing.

"We take a lot of consideration into who the author is, but regardless of that we are fact-checking everything regardless of where it is fact-checked," Condon added. "In many cases that means we are asking the authors for their source information and then going back and rechecking that source information. We are independently fact-checking everything that's going to end up in our story out of that book."

Asked about the impact of the 60 Minutes controversy on future reviews, Condon said, "In general, for all sorts of reasons, that being another example of this, [we stress] credibility and just making sure everything we are running is fact-checked."

Network/Outlet
CBS
Show/Publication
60 Minutes, Dateline NBC
Stories/Interests
Benghazi
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