Addressing the falling standards at CBS News and its hallmark Sunday night news magazine program, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hilzik recently lamented how 60 Minutes "used to stand for rigorous, honest reporting. What's happened to it?" Hiltzik accused 60 Minutes of practicing a "ghastly" brand of journalism.
Hiltzik has hardly been alone been expressing his amazement at CBS's dubious performance. What's key about his observation was that it came in early October, three weeks before CBS became enmeshed in the humiliating Benghazi controversy, in which the network was forced to retract a badly flawed report that featured a bogus "eyewitness."
So why in early October, prior to the Benghazi fiasco, was Hiltzik bemoaning the appalling journalism sponsored by 60 Minutes? The columnist took aim at an October 6, scare report the CBS program aired, alleging widespread fraud within the Social Security disability program. ("A secret welfare system.") Told from the perspective of a crusading Republican lawmaker, Media Matters noted at the time the CBS report relied almost entirely on anecdotal evidence to dishonestly portray the social welfare program as wasteful, despite the fact that award rates fell during the recession and that fraud is less than one percent of the program.
After watching the report, Hiltzik denounced CBS correspondent Steve Kroft's "rank ignorance about the disability program: how it works, who the beneficiaries are, why it has grown." The columnist was hardly alone in expressing his amazement at CBS's deficiencies. Kroft's one-sided, badly flawed report sparked widespread criticism.
But the disability and Benghazi debacles have hardly been isolated incidents. CBS News' Sharyl Attkisson this week aired a Republican-sponsored attack piece on the supposed security lapses of Healthcare.gov based entirely on a partial transcript leaked by President Obama's most partisan, and untrustworthy, critics on Capitol Hill. (Upon closer review, Attkisson's erroneous report completely fell apart.)
And during the roll-out of Obamacare when lots of news outlets were badly misreporting about the implications of insurance companies sending out health care plan cancellation notices, CBS News' Jan Crawford produced perhaps the most misleading and factually challenged report of them all; a report that came to symbolize the mainstream media botching the health care coverage with misleading scare coverage.
Viewed as a whole, it seems something is unraveling inside CBS News, as it now produces gotcha reports that are quickly proven to be flat-out wrong; reports that appear to be built around attempts to obfuscate the truth. And yes, in all these instances the target is the Democratic administration and those cheering the loudest are President Obama's most dedicated critics.
In the disability, health care and Benghazi cases, CBS aired four outrageously misleading and factually inaccurate reports. And CBS did all of that in the window of just six weeks. I'm hard pressed to point to the same number of ABC or NBC reports that have aired in the last 12 months that were as egregious as the CBS foursome.
And that's what's disturbing about CBS's losing streak; the mistakes seem to be unforced errors. Meaning, it's not like CBS reporters were victims of bad timing or misunderstood the facts in play. It's that they all failed to do the absolute minimum reporting on pressing public policy stories.
For instance, Crawford's infamous health care report profiled a distraught Florida woman who said that because of Obamacare her insurance premium was going to skyrocket from $54 a month to more than $500. (She was quickly invited onto Fox News to tell her tale.) But CBS's Crawford managed to leave out all kinds of crucial information about the woman's old plan and what the likely new costs would really be.
As Tommy Christopher at Mediaite noted [emphasis added]:
There are very good answers to her questions, answers which Crawford, either deliberately or through ignorance, failed to report, answers which are available to anyone with a passing familiarity with health insurance.
After some modest reporting, Christopher discovered the Florida woman's premium would actually increase to approximately $200 a month, and she'd receive "indefinitely better" heath insurance coverage in return.
That kind of shockingly bad reporting certainly raises questions about whether there's a larger attempt within CBS to leave out facts that don't support a pre-determined (anti-Obama) story reporters want to tell: Health insurance premiums are going up 10-fold! Your identity might be stolen via Healthcare.gov! Everybody's ripping off Social Security! The White House slept during Benghazi!
And yes, all of those headlines codify Republican Party talking points.
That's because the CBS reporting sometimes arrives directly, and is delivered unfiltered, from the offices of Republican politicians. Again, CBS' Attkisson actually reported, and her producer actually let her air, an exclusive report based on reviewing selectively leaked partial transcripts via Republicans.
Question: Who does that?
What ethical journalist would go on the air with a report slamming the administration, and specifically one administration official, knowing the reporter doesn't have the full story; knowing the reporter is missing the totality of the information because it's being purposefully held back by partisan sources?
Based on that ghastly behavior, was anyone surprised that when additional context was revealed the entire basis of Atkissen's report was obliterated.
In her report, Attkisson, who's dismissed by some of her own colleagues as an open partisan, suggested Healthcare.gov's chief project manager Henry Chao in September was completely unaware of "limitless" security concerns related to the government's troubled site; concerns that could lead to identify theft. That was Attkisson's partial transcript spin, as told by House Oversight Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). The entire transcript story? In his testimony, Chao was asked about security concerns that had nothing to do with the October 1, rollout of Obamacare, and instead were related to parts of Healthcare.gov that won't be active until 2014.
It's no exaggeration to say Attkisson's behavior (i.e. getting a story that wrong with sourcing that awful) would be a firing offense in some newsrooms. But at beleaguered CBS News, the network barely seemed to notice.
Maybe executives are just too busy digging out from the Benghazi mess. In that 60 Minutes case, the unprofessionalism on display bordered on the inexplicable in terms of how that flimsy report was put together, and the stunning lack of curiosity shown by its reporter and producers who balked at every instance to clarify the facts, and instead rushed out to spread misinformation.
"Lara Logan's story was not a mere journalistic mistake, but a hoax," wrote Frank Rich in New York magazine. The scary part is that Logan's hoax seemed to fit right in at today's CBS.