On the same day reports circulated that the reporters behind a fatally flawed, retracted 60 Minutes story may return to CBS News' airwaves as soon as early January, the program again faced criticism for a report that critics are calling a "puff piece" and an "infomercial."
On December 15, 60 Minutes aired a report on the National Security Agency based on unprecedented access to its headquarters and interviews with Agency staff, including its chief, Keith Alexander, who discussed the concerns many Americans have about its operations since the disclosures by Edward Snowden.
The segment opened with reporter John Miller's acknowledgement that he had once worked at another federal intelligence agency. It featured no critics of the NSA. Miller explained his thoughts on the story in an interview with CBS News, saying that the NSA's view is "really the side of the story that has been mined only in the most superficial ways. We've heard plenty from the critics. We've heard a lot from Edward Snowden. Where there's been a distinctive shortage is, putting the NSA to the test and saying not just 'We called for comment today' but to get into the conversation and say that sounds a lot like spying on Americans, and then say, 'Well, explain that.'"
Miller's report was immediately ripped apart by NSA critics and veteran journalists. Some have called the veracity of CBS News' reporting into question. Others termed the segment a "puff piece" and an "embarrassing" "infomercial," saying that it filmed was under guidelines that overwhelmingly favored the agency and proved the effectiveness of the NSA's communications staff.
The NSA report is only the latest of several heavily criticized 60 Minutes stories. Most notably, the network was forced to retract and remove from the airwaves the reporters responsible for a segment based on a supposed eyewitness to the 2012 Benghazi attacks who apparently fabricated his story. The day after the NSA story ran and less than three weeks after the leaves of absence were announced, Politico reported that those journalists, Lara Logan and Max McClellan, have "started booking camera crews for news packages" and could return to 60 Minutes as early as January. In recent weeks the program has also been criticized for reports on Social Security disability benefits and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos.
This series of debacles was noted by former CBS News correspondent Marvin Kalb, who was at one time the moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, who wrote that a program that "used to be the gold standard of network magazine programs" is increasingly "under fire." He concluded:
What's clear from this episode is that 60 Minutes is not facing another Lara Logan embarrassment. Miller did not get his facts wrong; he just did a story on 60 Minutes that should never have been on 60 Minutes. It was a promotional piece, almost by his own admission. In addition, the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley did a story on the 60 Minutes Miller piece to help promote it, as though it were an exceptional exclusive, which it was not.
In a funny way, all of this fresh criticism can be seen as a compliment. People expect 60 Minutes to be a place on the dial for tough questioning and rigorous reporting. When it does anything less than that, it opens itself to snap judgments that may be unfair but should not be surprising. It should, though, suggest strongly that CBS has further need for continuing self-examination.
Politico's Dylan Byers similarly opined that 60 Minutes has had "a terrible year" and that the program "is desperately in need of a news package that earns it praise rather than criticism.It needs to put up a hard-hitting investigation, fact-checked to the teeth, that doesn't come off as a promotional puff-piece. Because its reputation as the gold standard of television journalism has taken some serious hits of late."
Miller referred questions from Media Matters about the segment to a CBS News spokesperson who declined to comment on the record.
From the December 9 edition of CNN's Piers Morgan Live:
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After the publication of Media Matters' ebook The Benghazi Hoax, which tells the story of how the right twisted a tragedy into a failed witch hunt against the Obama administration, CBS News came under fire from media critics and journalism experts for airing a botched 60 Minutes report on Benghazi that featured a supposed eyewitness to the attacks who had lied about his actions the night of the attack. The story resulted in an internal investigation into how 60 Minutes got it wrong and a leave of absence by correspondent Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan. Here's the story of how CBS got burned by the Benghazi hoax.
As the consequences for 60 Minutes' botched story on Benghazi continue to unfold, it's unclear whether the apparent charlatan at the center of that report will face punishment from the publisher of his book.
After the October 27 segment aired, it was revealed that Dylan Davies, the supposed eyewitness featured in the story, had given conflicting accounts of his actions the night of the 2012 attacks in Benghazi. CBS News eventually pulled the segment and announced after an internal review that correspondent Lara Logan and her producer Max McClellan would be taking a leave of absence from 60 Minutes.
But the 60 Minutes segment wasn't the only publicity boost CBS Corporation gave to Davies' story. Two days after the 60 Minutes report aired, Simon & Schuster imprint Threshold Editions released The Embassy House, a book featuring Davies' dubious account.
While Threshold pulled the book from shelves shortly after CBS retracted its segment, the publisher has not revealed any action it plans to take against Davies to recoup costs or damages from his apparent lies. Requests for comment have been ignored.
But book publishing veterans, including several attorneys who handle such cases, said Threshold's options are clear according to traditional author agreements. They admit, however, that the publisher may have trouble actually collecting any damages.
"One of the important elements in a book publishing contract is a clause called representations and warranties, a list of promises and guarantees that an author makes to the publisher. These are very standard -- the customary assurances that the author gives is that the work is original and does not infringe on copyright," said Jonathan Kirsch, a publishing attorney based in Los Angeles. "Some publishers are smart enough or have lawyers who are smart enough to include additional assurances that the book is true, accurate, and based on sound research."
Kirsch added, "If you had a contract where the representation and warranties clause didn't include these assurances, the publisher would be in a more exposed position. If they do include that assurance then the publisher can sue for breach of contract. At the very beginning of the book contract it says that the book is a work of fiction or non-fiction. If the contract characterizes it as a work of non-fiction or an autobiography or an historical account, there is an implication that it is true and the publisher can sue on that account."
From the November 26 edition of MSNBC's All In With Chris Hayes:
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60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan and her producer Max McClellan will reportedly be taking a leave of absence from the program, per a memo from CBS News chairman (and 60 Minutes executive producer) Jeff Fager obtained by Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone.
Calderone wrote on November 26:
Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of '"60 Minutes," informed staff Tuesday that Lara Logan and her producer, Max McClellan, would be taking a leave of absence following an internal report on the newsmagazine's discredited Oct. 27 Benghazi report.
The memo lays out the findings of CBS News' internal investigation, led by CBS News executive producer Al Ortiz, into Logan's badly flawed October 27 60 Minutes report on the 2012 Benghazi attacks. CBS News withdrew the report after the credibility of Logan's Benghazi "eyewitness," security contractor Dylan Davies, crumbled amid allegations that he had lied about being at the besieged diplomatic compound while the attacks were happening. Ortiz describes Logan's report as "deficient in several respects," and found that her "team did not sufficiently vet Davies' account of his own actions and whereabouts that night."
Ortiz also noted that Davies' book on his Benghazi experiences, The Embassy House, "was published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, part of the CBS Corporation. 60 Minutes erred in not disclosing that connection in the segment." Simon & Schuster pulled the book from circulation after Davies' story fell apart. CBS News has not yet acknowledged that conflict of interest on-air.
Fager asked Logan and producer Max McClellan to go on leave from the program, and they both agreed to do so. "When faced with a such an error, we must use it as an opportunity to make our broadcast even stronger. We are making adjustments at 60 Minutes to reduce the chances of it happening again," wrote Fager.
In a statement, Media Matters chairman David Brock said:
From the start of this controversy, Media Matters has demanded that CBS review the flawed 60 Minutes report and take appropriate action. Today, the network has done that. We hope this serves as a lesson learned to CBS about the danger of misinformation.
The full memo from Fager and the conclusions from the internal review by Ortiz are below:
Newsweek contributing editor Jeff Stein is raising questions about whether 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan's husband -- a former employee of a firm that planted "pro-U.S. stories in the Iraqi media in 2005" -- was involved in the show's now-retracted Benghazi report.
CBS has been the target of a firestorm of criticism since the October 27 airing of a 60 Minutes segment on the 2012 terror attacks on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. The network eventually retracted their story after it became clear that the supposed Benghazi "eyewitness" featured in the segment had lied about his actions the night of the attacks. (A subsequent review of the segment by McClatchy News identified several other glaring weaknesses in the CBS report.)
Under intense pressure from numerous media observers -- including Media Matters founder and chairman David Brock -- CBS eventually announced that it is conducting a "journalistic review" of the story.
Citing the fact that "nobody at 60 Minutes has been fired or even publicly disciplined for its odd, inflammatory and dead-wrong" Benghazi report, Newsweek's Jeff Stein points to Logan's husband, Joseph Burkett, as "the most interesting figure in this mystery."
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."
From the November 17 edition of Fox News' MediaBuzz:
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CBS News' apparent decision to have one of its own producers conduct an internal "journalistic review" of the network's discredited 60 Minutes Benghazi report -- and effectively investigate the decisions of his boss -- is drawing harsh criticism from newsroom veterans and media experts.
The critiques follow a damaging week for the network as it received constant hits for its airing of a report that featured a former British security consultant who apparently lied about witnessing the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, a lackluster apology aimed at ending the scandal, and an unwillingness to explain how or whether it plans to investigate itself and reveal how it blundered so badly.
The latest word came today via Politico's Dylan Byers, who reported that he had learned, in spite of the efforts of the network, that Al Ortiz, a CBS News executive producer for special events, would be conducting what CBS has termed an ongoing "journalistic review" of the segment. Ortiz reports to CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, who is also the executive producer of 60 Minutes. Ortiz's conflict of interest, Byers noted, is especially relevant as Fager's dual role has been cited as a factor that may have contributed to the flawed report.
"In a world where perception matters, to have someone investigate their supervisor is a built-in conflict of interest," said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a former CNN correspondent. "I know Al and I am sure he will do a fine job. But as a practical matter, if you want to do a no-holds-bar complete investigation, this is not it."
Sesno, who spoke as he boarded a plane back to Washington Friday to guest host Reliable Sources on CNN this Sunday, said this would be a hot topic on the show.
"They shouldn't call it an investigation," he added. "If this is what they do, then Al is writing a memo. I'm not sure it is the word investigation in the way the outside world would define that. When you do these things, you have to do them all the way."
And Sesno was not alone. Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman was among others who said the investigation lacks credibility before it begins.
"There's no way that Al Ortiz can do an investigation that anyone outside CBS News, and maybe inside, will find credible at this point," said Shepard. "The network needs to hire a panel of outside independent journalists and let them loose inside 60 Minutes to find out step by step what happened. And be totally transparent. It's the only way for 60 Minutes to regain its once-stellar reputation. This is so why news organizations still need ombudsmen."
Former NBC News president Lawrence Grossman is the latest veteran news chief to call on 60 Minutes to better explain why it allowed a story on the 2012 Benghazi attack that was based on the lies of a now discredited source to air.
Grossman, who headed NBC News from 1984 to 1988 and also served as PBS CEO for many years, said once CBS News discovered former British security contractor Dylan Davies had lied about being at the attack site they should have "jumped in with both feet, and hands and everything else."
The October 27 segment featured Davies' heroic eyewitness account of the attacks, the same story he told in a book published by a CBS division. The network aired the story despite knowing that Davies had previously told his employer that he had never made it to the U.S. diplomatic compound on the night it was attacked. CBS finally retracted the story and apologized after learning that Davies had told the FBI the same story he had told his boss, but has not fully detailed how such a flawed story was broadcast.
Although 60 Minutes just this week revealed it was conducting an "journalistic review" of the story, Grossman stressed that the network should have been forthcoming sooner and should be providing more details about what the review will entail.
"I think CBS has an obligation now that the whole thing has been aired to let people know what they are doing to investigate exactly what happened," Grossman said in a November 14 phone interview. "How it came about and to be as specific and clear in what's going on with their examination of the matter."
Grossman added, "I think it's a big mistake for news divisions to be reluctant to apologize because the integrity of what they do is so important."
Grossman joins former ABC News President David Westin who told Huffington Post this week that "CBS made some big mistakes" and that the network should have acknowledged in their report that Davies had given a contradictory account to his employer.
A third former top network news executive, who requested anonymity, also weighed in, telling Media Matters, "The entire episode is worthy of more scrutiny and their apology was too thin. We expect better from a place like 60 Minutes."
Politico media reporter Dylan Byers reports that Al Ortiz, an executive producer at CBS News, will be "conducting the 'journalistic review' into the controversial '60 Minutes' report on Benghazi." As Byers notes, this presents a problem for Ortiz and a potential conflict of interest for CBS News, as the executive producer of 60 Minutes, Jeff Fager, is also the chairman of CBS News and Ortiz's boss.
Fager is also the person who, initially, decided that no investigation would take place. Though CBS says the review has been underway since they first learned of "the issue," a spokesman told the New York Times last Sunday that Lara Logan's televised apology would be the network's last word on the matter. "[T]he CBS News chairman, Jeff Fager, who is also the executive producer of "60 Minutes," has not ordered an investigation," the Times reported at the time.
Media Matters has previously addressed the problems with having a CBS News employee conduct the review. There were a number of problems with the report -- most notably the credibility of Benghazi "eyewitness" Dylan Davies -- all of which deserve intense scrutiny. Fager's dual role within the network invariably raises questions about the credibility and the independence of an internal review process.
On October 27, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a segment anchored by correspondent Lara Logan and featuring the results of her year-long investigation into the September 11, 2012, attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Right-wing media outlets and conservative politicians promptly seized on the story, claiming it validated their extensive effort to turn the attacks into a political scandal for President Obama and Hillary Clinton.
12 days later, the network pulled the report and apologized to viewers, with the network acknowledging that it had committed its biggest failure since the 2004 controversy surrounding a 60 Minutes story on President Bush's Air National Guard service.
After facing withering criticism for issuing an apology on 60 Minutes that failed to detail what the network had done wrong or any investigation CBS would undertake to explain how its blunder had occurred, CBS announced on November 14 that it had begun an ongoing "journalistic review" of the segment. But the network declined to detail who is performing that review or whether its results will be made public.
Much of the criticism has revolved around the network's handling of its interview with the former British security contractor Dylan Davies, identified by CBS as a "witness" to the attacks. But numerous flaws in the report have been identified since the segment aired.
Here are all of those flaws.
While 60 Minutes is conducting some kind of "journalistic review" of its discredited story about the Benghazi attack, publishers of a related book that has been removed from stores have been largely mum about how they published an apparent fabrication.
Threshold Books published The Embassy House by "Sgt. Morgan Jones" and then retracted the book after it became clear that the author -- a British former security contractor whose real name is Dylan Davies -- had apparently lied about being at the scene of the September 2012 assault.
Some critics have questioned how Threshold could have published such a story in the first place without verifying it. But according to publishing veterans, there are few safeguards to prevent such a failure in an industry that provides only minimal review and fact-checking. Without in-house fact-checkers at most publishing houses, authors themselves typically bear the sole responsibility for the accuracy of their work.
"As a general course of business, publishers do not conduct a thorough fact-check on most of their books," said Sloan Harris, a literary agent at ICM Talent who represents New Yorker veterans Jane Mayer and Ken Auletta. "A number of our prominent authors will, in fact, employ an outside fact-checker at their own expense."
But such fact-checking arrangements are far from mandatory or routine.
Harris explained, "publishers are already under huge market pressures and seem to be overworked every year, adding another function to their obligation is not a likely outcome at this point."
Threshold, a conservative imprint of the CBS publishing division Simon & Schuster, announced last week that the Davies book would no longer be for sale following the revelation that the author had told a dramatically different story to the FBI and his employer than he provided in the book. Davies' co-author Damien Lewis reportedly issued a statement saying:
If there are inconsistencies in the events as told in The Embassy House and Mr. Davies's previous renderings of the story, Mr. Davies needs to answer those inconsistencies. Those who were injured on the night of Benghazi 9/11 deserve to know the truth, as do the families of those who lost their lives.
But so far, that truth has yet to be provided, and Threshold does not seem in a hurry to explain it. The publisher has not responded to requests for comment or an explanation about how it vetted Davies, if the book was fact-checked, or what is being done to investigate how a book largely based on lies of its author could be approved.
Editors and agents who spoke with Media Matters agree that non-fiction book authors have the leeway to write what they wish without editors seeking to verify their claims. In the case of authors like Davies, who apparently choose to fabricate their stories, the lack of accountability can be devastating to publishers, journalists, and readers.
"It's true that it is up to the author a lot of the time," said Barry Harbaugh, a veteran editor at Harper Collins. Citing a biography of the cyclist Lance Armstrong he is editing, Harbaugh noted, "We made sure the author hired a fact-checker."
A former magazine fact-checker, Harbaugh recalled his surprise when he first arrived at the publishing house and discovered "there is not a full-time fact-checker here in the way that there is at most big magazines."
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.