“60 Minutes” Trips on Truth

By Casey Bukro

“60 Minutes” built a towering reputation as the TV news magazine that gets it right, but now is apologizing for getting it wrong in its report about the terrorist attack last year on the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Libyan port city of Benghazi.

Lara Logan, who reported the story, said it was a mistake to highlight a supposed eyewitness account of the attack by a security contractor who later was found to be lying about being at the scene of the attack, and seeing the body of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens at a local hospital.

“We made a mistake, and that’s very disappointing for any journalist,” said Logan.

The mistake involves an interview with Dylan Davies, a security contractor whose firm worked for the U.S. government, who was identified by “60 Minutes” by his pseudonym, Morgan Jones. He gave Logan a dramatic account of his role in fighting the terrorists, even smashing a terrorist in the face with a rifle butt. Logan appeared to coach him in describing the encounter.

“It was a mistake to include him in our report. For that, we are very sorry,” she is quoted in a New York Times story.

Actually, Davies/Jones told FBI investigators and his employer that he never left his villa the night of the attack because it was too dangerous. He did not visit the attack scene until the next morning. The conflicting government report caused the “60 Minutes” report to unravel.

From a journalist’s point of view, one can wonder about the CBS report, admittedly in retrospect. Why was Davies allowed to use a fake name on camera? And was any attempt made to prove that Davies was at the attack scene or at the local hospital, as he alleged?

The Times reported that CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager called the Logan report “as big a mistake” as “60 Minutes” has made in its 45-year history, but that its televised apology would be its last word on the issue.

This is seen as a “defensive crouch” by a news organization with a hard-hitting reputation and little pity for those caught in its cross-hairs. Fager also is executive producer of “60 Minutes.”

Marvin Kalb, a former CBS news correspondent, said in Politico.com that an apology from CBS is not enough.

“What has CBS learned, if anything?” asks Kalb, a senior adviser to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Following the apologies, said Kalb, “perhaps CBS (and other networks, too) will engage in a wide-ranging, no-holds-barred self-analysis of its reporting standards, starting one hopes with the unholy alliance it has formed with book publishers pushing their hot exclusives,” he wrote.

Davies/Jones had a book deal with Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS’s parent corporation.

If an apology is all CBS News can muster, clearly it is not being as tough on itself as it is on others.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages journalists to “abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”

On the upside, “60 Minutes” admitted its mistake and apologized, a rarity in TV journalism.  SPJ says “admit mistakes and correct them promptly.” The admission phase is done; the correction remains to be seen.

Later, CBS announced that Logan and her producer were placed on leave of absence.

In a memo to staff, Fager wrote that he asked Logan and Max McClellan, the producer, to take a leave of absence, which they agreed to do.

“When faced with a such an error, we must use it as an opportunity to make our broadcast even stronger,” Fager wrote. “We are making adjustments at 60 Minutes to reduce the chances of it happening again.”

As executive producer, Fager said, “I am responsible for what gets on the air.”

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About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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