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How CBS Could Have Avoided The 60 Minutes Benghazi Fiasco

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Source: Media Matters

Network Chairman Ignored His Own Standards

CBS News' extended refusal to specifically address questions at the heart of its controversial 60 Minutes  Benghazi terror report ran counter to the counsel CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager has given in recent years about the importance of journalists admitting their mistakes and being transparent in the process.

In public speeches, Fager, who also holds the title of 60 Minutes' Executive Producer, has repeatedly insisted that for the good of a free press, journalists must acknowledge errors when they are made and must be honest with news consumers when doubts arise about their work. For the simmering Benghazi controversy however, CBS News embraced a mostly non-responsive strategy,  exactly the opposite of what Fager has preached.

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The problems with 60 Minutes' politically charged Benghazi report were self-evident in terms of the witness the program featured. Yet CBS News executives refused for a full week to address the central issue regarding the fact that that witness had told two contradictory tales about the Benghazi terror attack and what he did that night. Instead officials, including Fager, continued to publicly laud its Benghazi work (the news chairman remained "proud" of it, as of November 6), despite the fact that, as one veteran journalist put it, the report represented a "serious problem" for the network.  

It was only when the New York Times  last night reported that there were even deeper discrepancies in the report that Fager and CBS conceded mistakes were made with regards to its star witness. It wasn't until today's edition of CBS' This Morning that the network's Lara Logan finally admitted that the nearly two-week-old report had been a "mistake" and explained that CBS News had failed to fully vet that witness.

CBS's defensive, slow-footed response was difficult to match up with Fager's previous pronouncements. "When you do make a mistake, boy oh boy own up to it," Fager told Arizona State University journalism students in 2011. "Go out of your way to own up to it." He added: "Credibility is what we sell."

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That same year while addressing the City Club of Cleveland, Fager stressed that "one of the most serious threats to a free press is a big mistake without an apology or a correction."

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In both of those cases, Fager was speaking about the lessons CBS News learned in the wake of the 2004 controversy regarding the 60 Minutes II report about President Bush and his service in the Texas Air National Guard and the disputed documents correspondent Dan Rather used. Fager chastised the CBS team that produced that story, claiming it set out to prove a story it wanted to tell and when that happens journalists "tend to leave any mitigating factors out because they might work against your theory, and only disaster can come from that."

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Yet critics suggest that's precisely what happened with the 60 Minutes Benghazi report. The program's failure to alert viewers that its witness had given conflicting account of the terror attacks appeared to be a prime example of journalists withholding "mitigating factors."

Meanwhile, there was a chorus of commentary from news veterans and reporters working the 60 Minutes story, urging CBS to come forward and simply explain how they aired an exclusive interview with a witness who, it turns out, gave divergent eyewitness accounts. "I don't see any way that 60 Minutes would not need to offer an explanation," Alex S. Jones told Media Matters. Jones is no partisan -- he's a former media writer for The New York Times and current director of the Shorenstein Center on The Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

"It's an issue of journalistic integrity and accountability. For six days, CBS News was utterly untransparent," wrote Dylan Byers at Politico.

On October 27, 60 Minutes featured a supposed "eyewitness" of the September 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities; one who claimed that during the attack he heroically scaled a wall of the U.S. compound and knocked out a terrorist with his rifle butt.

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Eric Boehlert is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, 2006). He worked for five years as a senior writer for, where he wrote extensively about media and politics. Prior to that, he worked as a (more...)

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