When Sharyl Attkisson ended her two-decade association with CBS News earlier this year, she warmed the hearts of conservatives by implying her work had been curtailed by progressive forces inside the network. It was Liberal Media Bias 101: CBS erected roadblocks that made it impossible for Attkisson to tell the truth about the Democratic administration. Previously toasted by right-wing activists and praised for her anti-Obama reporting, the reporter's public farewell was filled with finger-pointing: "Sharyl Attkisson Paints CBS News As A Bunch of Cowards," announced one Washington Post headline.
Recently, Attkisson returned to the friendly confines of Fox News to pump up the claim that she had been waging "war" with her "own management team," as Fox host Howard Kurtz described it. In a series of interviews described by media observers as an "audition," the former network reporter alleged there was a "political aspect" to her troubles at CBS and that her supervisors gave in to "well organized" outside campaigns that complained about coverage.
She bemoaned the fact that "The press in general seems to be very shy about challenging the administration as if it is making some sort of political statement rather than just doing our jobs as watch dogs."
Whistleblowers should always be listened to. The problem is she refuses to back up any of her conspiratorial claims.
While making her allegations, Attkisson continues to break a cardinal rule of journalism: show, don't tell. Attkisson constantly tells interviewers about how her work was curtailed at CBS. But she never shows examples of it being done; she never cites specifics. The network manager she mentions by name is CBS News chairman Jeff Fager, who she describes as sharing her views "as to what the news should be about."
Any competent journalist should be able to back up their assertion with evidence. In this case, Attkisson doesn't even bother to try.
Now that the Republican Party has settled on a set of principles to guide its action on immigration reform, media outlets have turned to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as a credible source on immigration reform, validating his arguments that reform will slow U.S. economic recovery and further depress Americans' wages. These talking points, however, have been repeatedly discredited as experts agree that immigration reform would have a positive impact on the economy and Americans' wages.
As The Washington Post reported, Republican leaders released a list of "principles" on immigration reform, declaring that "there would be 'no special path' to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but that, in general, they should be allowed to 'live legally and without fear' in the United States if they meet a list of tough requirements and rules." The statement concluded that "none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced."
In reporting on the debate, media are validating Sessions' bogus economic arguments against reform. Discussing the issue on Fox News, for example, contributor Tucker Carlson highlighted Sessions' arguments, saying that Sessions is "no liberal and is not either some kind of fiery demagogue populist" and that "he's making an intellectual case against more immigration in a down economy."
CBS News similarly highlighted an "analysis" by Sessions, reporting that it "said increasing the number of immigrants would hurt an already weak economy, lower wages and increase unemployment. He cited White House adviser Gene Sperling's comment earlier this month that the economy has three people looking for every job opening." The article continued:
He said the House Republican leaders' plan that's taking shape would grant work permits almost immediately to those here illegally, giving them a chance to compete with unemployed Americans for any job. He said it would lead to a surge in the future flow of unskilled workers and would provide amnesty to a larger number of immigrants in the country illegally, giving them a chance to apply for citizenship through green cards.
Politico also quoted Sessions' criticism that the GOP proposal "provides the initial grant of amnesty before enforcement; it would surge the already unprecedented level of legal lesser-skilled immigration to the U.S. that is reducing wages and increasing unemployment; and it would offer eventual citizenship to a large number of illegal immigrants and visa overstays."
In fact, Sessions' arguments are actually repackaged talking points from anti-immigrant groups and, as the libertarian Cato Institute noted, "are based on misinterpretations of government reports, cherry-picked findings by organizations that engage in statistical chicanery, or just flat-out incorrect." Cato, which released a point-by-point rebuttal of many of Sessions' claims, added that his assertions "do not advance a logical argument against immigration."
CBS Sunday morning political talk show Face The Nation with Bob Schieffer is knocking down right-wing media claims that an interview with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was edited for political reasons, explaining that the one-on-one just went too long and was also shortened for breaking news on the Maryland mall shooting.
"This was not uncommon at all, this was a quick turnaround pre-tape," a Face the Nation spokesperson told Media Matters Monday, explaining that the interview was slated for seven minutes and ran long. "That just happened to be at the end so it was easy to trim for turnaround. And we had breaking news of the [Maryland mall] shooter's name ... We had already gone overtime, that is pretty much the gist of it."
But some on the right found conspiracy in the routine interview editing, suggesting that the cuts had been made to protect President Obama from attacks Cruz levied in the deleted portion.
Newsbusters posted an item after examining the full version of the interview posted on Cruz's YouTube page, claiming that Cruz "was the victim of editing by CBS" because "the senator's comments surrounding President Obama's 'abuse of power' were edited from the program."
During the deleted segment, Cruz attacked President Obama's handling of the Benghazi attacks and promoted the conservative conspiracy that the administration had indicted conservative filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza because of his film that criticized the president.
While Newsbusters acknowledged that "it is certainly plausible that CBS edited out the ending of the Cruz interview for time," they nonetheless called the editing "highly inappropriate and unusual" and wrote that the network "should explain why it felt it appropriate to edit out a high profile senator accusing the President of the United States of targeting his politcal [sic] enemies."
None of those sites, however, apparently sought to ask CBS or Face The Nation why the edit occurred. Asked if it was done to censor Cruz's Obama criticism, the spokesperson stated: "There was no editorial purpose."
Face The Nation said editing such interviews is common.
"It just varies on topic and the availability of the person," the spokesperson said. "We also had breaking news, too. There's a lot to get into that first half hour."
Broadcast nightly news shows completely ignored the day's landmark court ruling striking down federal net neutrality regulations, an omission that deals a huge disservice to the public audience and a boon to the news outlets' parent corporations.
Net neutrality -- the principle that corporate internet providers should provide equal access to content for subscribers -- was dealt a serious blow the morning of January 14 when the D.C. Court of Appeals invalidated the Federal Communications Commission's requirement that providers offer equal access to online information, regardless of the source. Prior to the ruling, the FCC prevented internet providers from blocking (or slowing down access to) content in order to benefit their own business interests.
That evening, neither NBC, CBS, nor ABC acknowledged the ruling in their evening news broadcasts.
Here's why that's important -- NBC is owned by Comcast Corporation, which bills itself as the nation's largest high-speed Internet provider. CBS' parent company is CBS Corporation, which also owns multiple sports networks and Showtime, while ABC is part of The Walt Disney Company empire, also the owner of ESPN.
This is a huge conflict of interest for the broadcast news channels, as their parent corporations all have a vested interest in striking down net neutrality laws and promoting their own content at the expense of competitors that lack an advantage in size or Internet service. As PCWorld explained:
On September 11, 2012, terrorists killed four Americans during attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Conservatives immediately sought to use those tragic killings for political benefit.
By January 1, with conservatives having failed to prevent President Obama's re-election, but succeeding in using the issue to torpedo Susan Rice's bid for Secretary of State, Media Matters had some reason to hope that this effort would subside.
We were wrong.
Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media doubled down, spending much of the year trying to turn Benghazi into Obama's Watergate (or Iran-Contra, or both) and try to end any potential presidential run by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before it can begin. And some mainstream outlets, more eager to win over a conservative audience than to check their facts, ran their own misleading, sketchily-sourced Benghazi exposés.
Much of the discussion has centered around two "unanswered questions" that in reality were answered long ago.
Right-wing media outlets (and mainstream outlets seeking to attract their audience) have been obsessed with asking why the Obama administration initially linked the attacks with an anti-Islam YouTube video that spurred violent protests across the Middle East in mid-September, even after it became clear that the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis had believed there was a connection between the two.
They've also taken every opportunity to question why help wasn't sent to aid U.S. diplomats in Benghazi. Reporters have continued asking this "lingering question" even as a long line of national security experts, from both inside and outside of the administration, have explained that while the Defense Department quickly deployed Special Forces teams to the region, due to logistical issues they were unable to reach the scene until long after the attacks had concluded.
To comprehensively debunk these claims and many more about the attacks, in October 2013 Media Matters' David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt released the ebook The Benghazi Hoax.
Here are seven of the worst media reports and conspiracies from the last year on the Benghazi hoax:
"It is, to put it mildly, surprising that 60 Minutes did not check this discrepancy before broadcast" -- former Meet The Press host Marvin Kalb.
Even now, nearly two months after it aired, almost nothing about CBS News' "exclusive" (and infamous) 60 Minutes report on Benghazi makes sense. From conception, to execution, to the network's stubborn claims that the report met its high standards even as it publicly dissolved, the story on the Benghazi terror attack of 2012 quickly became a case study in how not to practice journalism on the national stage. And in how dangerous it is to lose sight of fair play and common sense when wielding the power and prestige of the country's most-watched news program.
The 60 Minutes Benghazi hoax had it all: a flimsy political premise featuring previously debunked myths, a correspondent with an established agenda, a blinding corporate conflict of interest, and an untrustworthy "witness" who apparently fabricated his story and had once reportedly asked a journalist to pay him for his information. (The fact that the CBS Benghazi report was widely hyped by an array of chronically inaccurate conservative media outlets represented another obvious red flag.)
When the Benghazi hoax first began to reveal itself, a chorus of veteran journalists agreed that CBS had a pressing problem on its hands and that executives needed to address the mounting crisis. Instead CBS for days, led by 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan and news chairman Jeff Fager, defended the truly indefensible, until that became unfeasible.
The sad part is the Benghazi hoax wasn't an isolated incident this year at CBS. The colossal blunder certainly created the most controversy. But the type of ethical short cuts used in that report were visible elsewhere on the network. CBS News reports on health care reform, disability fraud, and climate change in 2013 also displayed a disturbing willingness to peddle misinformation under the guise of network news.
Fittingly, the year ended with 60 Minutes once again receiving a barrage of criticism for another one-sided report, this one about the National Security Agency's surveillance practices, causing media observers from Politico to National Review to ask what's the matter with a program once considered to be the gold standard for network news magaizine programs.
Collectively, and especially because of the Benghazi hoax, these reports earned CBS News the distinction of being named Media Matters' Misinformer of the Year for 2013. This is only the second time in nine years that a mainstream news organization has received that title. The honor has typically been awarded to an individual right-wing media figure from whom we'd expect professional misinformation, such as Glenn Beck in 2009 and Rush Limbaugh in 2012.
From a news organization with a storied past, we expect better.
2013 got off to a promising start when perennial conservative huckster Dick Morris was finally fired from Fox News.
But any hope for year free from scandal unraveled as conservative outlets like Fox, and venerable institutions like CBS and CNN, found themselves mired in ethical morasses of their own making.
Media Matters looks back at the year in media ethics:
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.
Broadcast evening news programs slanted coverage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by hyping negative aspects of the law's rollout while underplaying or not exploring positive changes to insurance coverage under the health care law, including the role that subsidies would play in making health care affordable. All three major broadcast networks aired more segments that took on a negative tone than a positive tone in October and November 2013, according to a Media Matters study.
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.
CBS Evening News left out some important details in its report on a Supreme Court case that could extend the concept of corporate personhood outlined in Citizens United by allowing secular, for-profit corporations to dictate reproductive decisions for its employees.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, two cases in which business owners argue they should be exempt from certain Affordable Care Act (ACA) requirements. In reporting on this case, CBS opted to highlight Denver-based Hercules Industries, a company with Catholic owners who are protesting the contraception mandate in court. But Hercules is not actually a plaintiff in either of the cases that have been accepted for review. The actual plaintiffs before the Supreme Court, while not Catholic, nevertheless claim that their religious beliefs preclude them from providing health insurance for their employees that covers comprehensive preventive care, because of their personal opposition to certain forms of birth control.
From CBS's November 26 report:
REPORTER ANNA WERNER: Denver-based heating and air condition manufacturer Hercules Industries has a health plan for its employees, one that doesn't include contraception. The family-owned company is one of 44 businesses suing to stop the federal government from forcing it to cover birth control.
Andy Newland is company president.
NEWLAND: This case isn't about saying that people not having access to those things. This case is saying we just don't want to pay for them.
WERNER: Newland's family is Catholic. The religion views artificial contraception as a sin. Under the Affordable Care Act, companies like Hercules with 50 or more employees, must cover contraception.
NEWLAND: Can Americans, including family-business owners, live and do business according to our faith?
WERNER: How is that different from telling your employees you can't use birth control pills?
NEWLAND: We're not saying don't go buy them. We're not putting barricades in front of Wal-Mart. We're saying we simply don't want to pay for them.
Though CBS profiled a company owned by Catholics, it did not mention that many non-profit Catholic and other religiously-affiliated entities are already provided exemptions from the mandate. Whether these exemptions should be extended to for-profit, secular corporations is a separate and novel question that could extend even farther the radical concept of "corporate personhood" outlined in the recent Citizens United decision.
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:
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."
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.