Lessons in CBS’s Flawed Report on Benghazi

Jeff SouthBy Jeff South, Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University

I’ve been looking for a silver lining in CBS’s embarrassing retraction of its report on the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Maybe I’ve found one. But first, here’s the back story:

On Oct. 27, “60 Minutes,” the venerable CBS newsmagazine, aired its investigation into the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Among her sources, correspondent Lara Logan relied on British security contractor Dylan Davies, who claimed he had been at the consulate during the attack and said security there had been inadequate.

Republican politicians and other critics of the Obama administration seized on CBS’s report as evidence that the White House had been caught off guard in Libya and had lied to the public. The day after the broadcast, for example, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina vowed “to block every appointment in the United States Senate until the survivors are being made available to Congress.”

But other news organizations poked holes in CBS’s report and in Davies’ credibility. The New York Times reported that Davies had told the FBI that he stayed in his Benghazi villa while militants stormed the consulate. Meanwhile, the “liberal attack machine,” in the words of the online magazine Slate, kicked into gear and challenged the “60 Minutes” report and Logan’s objectivity.

Finally, on Sunday, “60 Minutes” apologized for ever broadcasting the story and in particular for airing Davies’ comments. “We realized we had been misled, and it was a mistake to include him in our report,” Logan said.

So, we have: a CBS exposé. Outraged politicians. An attack machine feeding the media. A flaw found in the initial report. And a retraction. Sound familiar?

Rewind to 2004. On “60 Minutes,” Dan Rather aired a 15-minute segment alleging that then-President George Bush had received preferential treatment to enter the National Guard in 1968 in order to avoid the Vietnam War draft. Bush’s defenders were outraged. The “conservative attack machine,” as the Daily Kos put it at the time, revved up. Under pressure, CBS acknowledged that it had been duped – and that a document cited in its report had been forged. CBS apologized and retracted its report.

After the 2004 fiasco, Rather was ousted from CBS. After the latest miscue, only Logan’s report got yanked: It disappeared from the “60 Minutes” website. Just as “60 Minutes” survived the blowback from Rathergate, I think it will recover from the controversy over the Benghazi report.

But back to that silver lining: Maybe the latest CBS kerfuffle will help dispel the myth about media bias.

Conservatives complain about the “left-wing” media – and pointed to Rather as a poster child for what they saw as slanted reporting. Liberals complain about the “right-wing” media – and pointed to Logan as Exhibit A.

To me, after two decades as a reporter and editor and almost as long teaching journalism, the two episodes demonstrate that the news organizations are equal-opportunity watchdogs, though they may sometimes stray from the trail. If reporters have a bias, it’s to get a “good story” – not to push a political opinion.

And there’s this: Both “60 Minutes” stories were built on more than just the discredited evidence. Rather insists that his overarching narrative was indeed true – that Bush was treated with kid gloves; Long’s supporters say her report’s main point also holds up: that the U.S. State Department botched security in Benghazi and tried to cover it up.

About the Author: Jeff South is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has worked for newspapers in Texas, Arizona and Virginia. South was a friend of Chris Stevens: They served together in the U.S. Peace Corps in southern Morocco in 1983-85.