News anchors and presidential administrations come and go, but some things stay the same. In 2004, CBS apologized for a politically charged 60 Minutes report questioning George W. Bush‘s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. And today, CBS apologized for a politically charged 60 Minutes report on the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which it now says was based on a questionable interview from a purported eyewitness.
The names have changed, the circumstances are not exactly the same. But both cases were examples of an unfortunate pattern: the network invested in a high-stakes story, then, under questioning, dug in its heels as long as possible before admitting mistakes.
The original report, which aired Oct. 27, had come under almost immediate questioning, both from activist outlets and from other mainstream media organizations. In the 60 Minutes interview, security contractor Dylan Davies claimed to have been present at the scene of the attack that killed four people. Days later, however, the Washington Post reported that, in an incident report following the attack, Davies said that he had not been on the scene until the next day.
At best, CBS had aired a report by someone who had either lied to them or lied to superiors without their knowledge. Yet CBS didn’t just stand by the story, it pushed back hard, at some points suggesting that it was being attacked by critics because of partisan motives. (Media Matters for America, a media-criticism group that tends to target conservatives, was at the forefront of the criticism.) As recently as Wednesday, 60 Minutes producer emailed the Huffington Post that the outlet was “proud” of their story.
But Davies’ credibility was also being questioned by the hardly left-of-center Fox News, one of whose reporters said Davies had asked for money to cooperate with a story. And further complicating the money picture: Davies was promoting a memoir published by a corporate sibling of CBS, which the 60 Minutes report did not disclose. (CBS did at least earlier say the non-disclosure was a mistake.)
By the end of this week, the doubts around the report crescendoed to the point where CBS had to back off. Last night, the network sent out an abrupt statement: “We are currently looking into this serious matter to determine if he misled us, and if so, we will make a correction.” And this morning, Lara Logan, the correspondent on the original report, went on CBS This Morning to walk it back: “What we now know,” she said, “is that he told the FBI a different story from what he told us. That’s when we realized that we no longer had confidence in our source, and that we were wrong to put him on air, and we apologize to our viewers… we will correct the record on our broadcast on Sunday night.”
Apologizing for a report that clearly, at least with what we know to date, should not have made air is the right thing and a good start. But there’s nothing in Logan’s or CBS’s statements that suggest CBS had been moved to it by any information or doubts that had not been in the press for over a week already. Logan’s apology this morning does cite a second story, out earlier this week, that Davies had told a different story to the FBI as well as in his incident report. But there’s no indication why that’s a distinction with a significant enough difference: either way, they aired an explosive charge from a man with questionable credibility.
As with the National Guard story, CBS is not just embarrassed journalistically but solidly stuck in an acrimonious partisan political debate. (Sen. Lindsey Graham cited the report as partial reason for his decision to block the confirmations of the Obama Administrations appointees in the Senate, calling the 60 Minutes interview a “death blow.”) It aired a damning, and now suspect, report to the biggest remaining news audience in TV. And it has itself to blame–not just for the story, but for the follow-up, which make the mistake worse than it needed to be.
Whatever went on in this specific report, CBS’s wagons-circling response to reasonable criticisms was an example of an unfortunately familiar pattern in journalistic (and other screw-ups). Once someone stakes out a tough or controversial position, there’s a buy-in: from that point on, they’re conditioned to look for reasons to support a position they’re already invested in.
The fact that partisan groups are advancing a critique becomes reason to overlook the objective reasons for the critique. The fact that you’ve put in time and reporting resources–and don’t doubt that Logan and company worked as doggedly as they say they did–becomes reason to dismiss a source’s contradictory testimony. The story becomes the reason to defend the story (as do the consequences of admitting fault).
In 2004, 60 Minutes survived the National Guard controversy (though it cost the jobs of producers and eventually Dan Rather). But it did so partly by, eventually, giving itself a long, hard look–among other things, it commissioned an independent investigation into what went wrong. The network hasn’t said what it’s going to do moving forward this time. But considering how this story played out, it looks like there’s good reason again to give the job to someone who hasn’t bought in.