Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lara Logan’s cautionary tale

BENGHAZI, BENGHAZI, Benghazi — we’ve never been there, it just feels like we have. Over the last year, the name of the Libyan city where four Americans died on Sept. 11, 2012, has been a vicious sort of mantra as used by Republicans on Capitol Hill, a kind of club against the Obama White House, one that Republican lawmakers have brandished to justify the fault-finding mission they’ve been on since practically the day it happened.

But thanks to a network eager to break a story, a correspondent with a pro-military bent, and a security contractor with less of an axe to grind than a book to sell, the scaffold of Republican outrage at the Obama administration lost one of its more reliable supports. The reputation of one of the country’s leading news organizations, already wounded, took another major hit on Tuesday. And the Benghazi debacle continues to be the gift that keeps on giving people headaches.

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On Tuesday, “60 Minutes” executive producer and CBS News chairman Jeff Fager informed the CBS staff that Lara Logan, the veteran CBS foreign correspondent, would be taking a leave of absence from the network as a direct result of the missteps in the now-infamous and thoroughly discredited “60 Minutes” report on the Benghazi incident, a report that largely laid blame for the attack on the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

You know the background by now: On Oct. 27, “60 Minutes” featured a report by Logan on what happened that September night in Benghazi, when American diplomat J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in an attack at the American diplomatic mission by still-unknown assailants. Logan and “60 Minutes” based the reporting on a nailbiter of a story by one Morgan Jones, a security official, who told the world about his role in the action during the attack — even adding the bravado touch of how he disabled one of the attackers with a rifle-butt blow.

It made for riveting television; no doubt Hollywood screenwriters were salivating at the prospect of this as a movie — a movie to be based on Jones’ book, “The Embassy House,” set for publication by the Threshold Editions imprint of Simon & Schuster, the venerable publishing company owned by . . . CBS Corporation.

Then it all came undone. And undone again.

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IN STORIES in The Washington Post and The New York Times, the great unraveling began: Much like with a similar fiasco at that network in 2004 — the infamous report about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service — CBS had fallen prey to its own ambitions, and to that not-quite resistible journalistic instinct to get it first, at the clear and present expense of getting it right. For the second time in less than a decade, the Tiffany Network has managed to piss on itself from a great height.

In the Times story, Fager “conceded that CBS appeared to have been duped by the primary source for the report, a security official who told a national television audience a harrowing tale of the attack last year at the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. On [Oct. 31] it was disclosed that the official, Dylan Davies, had provided a completely different account in interviews with the F.B.I., in which he said he never made it to the mission that night.”

The Times reported that “Mr. Davies, identified as Morgan Jones on the “60 Minutes” report and on the jacket of his book, “The Embassy House,” gave three separate interviews to the F.B.I., according to Obama administration officials. Each time he described the events in ways that diverged from his account to CBS . . .

“His interviews with the F.B.I., disclosed [Oct. 31] by The New York Times, were critical in the unraveling of his story. Mr. Davies had already told his employer, the security firm Blue Mountain, that he never appeared at the mission the night of the attack ... Mr. Davies contended that he had not created or approved the incident report and that he had needed to lie to his employer because he had defied orders to remain at his villa. The justification for believing him, Mr. Fager said [Nov. 1], was Mr. Davies’s assurance that had told the real truth to the F.B.I. . . . ”

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When the deal went down, The House That Paley Built went into hair-on-fire mode, waging a three-pronged offensive. CBS brass pulled the Davies “60 Minutes” report down from the CBS News web site. Simon & Schuster announced that it would suspend publication of Davies’ book. And Logan went on “CBS This Morning” to offer fresh mea culpa beignets to go with the morning coffee.

The unfolding farrago, which Fager characterized as “a black eye” in the Times, has an unfortunate precedent. Students of media history will remember the 2004 incident, when the network ran hell-bent with a story that cast the military record of President George W. Bush in a bad light, claiming that documents proved Bush had received preferential treatment during his time in the Texas National Guard.

It was a story that CBS was compelled to retract, one that may have cost former CBS News anchor Dan Rather his job.

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REPUBLICAN TALKING points built around the original “60 Minutes” report’s conclusions on Benghazi were suddenly, embarrassingly, rendered null and void. GOP Rep. Lindsey Graham, the pepper pot from South Carolina who delights in poking and provoking the Obama administration, was an early and vocal champion of the “60 Minutes” report when it first aired on Oct. 27, singing its praises more than once.

Talking Points Memo detailed some of Graham’s serial hosannahs: “He told CNN's Wolf Blitzer last week that the report filed by CBS News correspondent Lara Logan proved that ‘the story told by the administration about what happened in Benghazi doesn't have an ounce of truth in it.’ ”

“Appearing on ‘Fox & Friends’ on [Oct. 29], Graham said that the discredited witness in the ‘60 Minutes’ report "really does destroy the narrative" on Benghazi.”

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What a difference three days make. Graham had nothing to say about the CBS self-retraction for three days, not a mumblin’ word — until a spokesman for Graham finally told TPM that the senator ‘will be a guest on CNN State of the Union discussing the latest on Benghazi and the Iranian nuclear program’ [on Nov. 3].”

That’s when Graham doubled down on the same dumb he’d doubled down on already. On Nov. 3, the senator, who’d been adamant in his demand to interview the survivors of the attack on the consulate in Libya, renewed a threat to put a hold on the nominations of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve and Jeh Johnson to run the Department of Homeland Security.

“I want to perform oversight. I'm not trying to prosecute a crime,” he said on CNN. “All I want to do is talk to the survivors, protecting their security, protecting their identity, to find out exactly what did happen. Was it a protest? Was it an al-Qaida-inspired attack?”

Graham joined at least one other Republican lawmaker in insisting on a select committee to investigate the Benghazi matter — despite his own endorsement of the discredited “60 Minutes” report as a reason for convening a committee in the first place.

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MARY MAPES knows firsthand how bad this can get. Mapes was the ”60 Minutes" producer fired over the 2004 Bush / National Guard story. In a Nov. 8 interview with Media Matters, Mapes said she believes her former employer made the conscious decision to tweak the Benghazi story in a way that found favor with conservatives.

“My concern is that the story was done very pointedly to appeal to a more conservative audience's beliefs about what happened at Benghazi,” she told Media Matters. “They appear to have done that story to appeal specifically to a politically conservative audience that is obsessed with Benghazi and believes that Benghazi was much more than a tragedy.”

“On a human level, I feel really badly for the people who worked on that report. I have walked the halls when something like this happens,” Mapes said. “Part of being human is making mistakes and being forgiven for it.”

Still, she stressed that “what is concerning to me is the reason they went after that story in the first place. ... It so concerns me that it appears that story was done to appeal to a conservative element in the audience; that's not the way you should choose your stories.”

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Mapes wasn’t just voicing sour grapes. Since the first part of the “60 Minutes” imbroglio surfaced, something else has come to light. A Nov. 22 story in Newsweek strongly suggests that Logan may very well have let things get dangerously, unprofessionally personal.

Acknowledging CBS’ first admission of errors, Newsweek’s Jeff Stein reported that the CBS mea culpa still “left some large and troubling questions unanswered; the most important one is how ... Logan, her producer and other network news executives let security contractor Dylan Davies on the air with his explosive tale about what he did and saw during that attack.

“While Davies was the central on-camera personality in that report, the most interesting figure in this mystery was never on screen, nor listed as a contributor to the piece. It is Logan’s husband, Joseph W. Burkett, a former Army sergeant and onetime employee of a private intelligence outfit hired by the Pentagon to plant pro-U.S. stories in the Iraqi media in 2005.

“One recent account implied that Burkett, 42, was the Svengali behind the now infamous story that pinned responsibility for the Benghazi attack on al Qaeda, without citing any sources.”

Stein notes that what “stood out” for reporters critical of Logan’s reporting were her “unsourced allegations pinning responsibility for the attack solely on al Qaeda, and in particular, operatives with close ties to Osama Bin Laden. The effect of such allegations is to once again undermine the Obama administration’s position that the attack had local origins and came as a surprise, and that all that made rescuing the besieged Americans very difficult, if not impossible.”

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IT ALL makes sense when you take note of her October keynote speech in Chicago before the annual luncheon of the Better Government Association. There, Logan made it clear just how the “60 Minutes” report that aired days later could have happened, and could have gotten everything so wrong. In that 20-minute speech, Logan took to the podium and began the process of committing what may have been career suicide.

In a call for a proper American military response to the events in Benghazi, Logan said “I hope to God you’re sending in your best clandestine warriors who are going to exact revenge and let the world know that the United States will not be attacked on its own soil, that its ambassadors will not be murdered, and that the United States will not stand by and do nothing about it.”

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This full-throated call for more American military involvement in foreign lands, this slavishly conservative appeal to smite the enemy without reservations was troubling enough to hear from a professional, presumably disinterested journalist.

But in the statement that may be her professional undoing, Logan made it clear at the BGA luncheon why she’s now on a leave of absence from CBS — and why, almost by necessity, that leave of absence is likely to be a permanent one:

“There is a distinction,” she said, “between investigating something to find out what the real situation is and trying to prove something you believe is true. And those are two very different things, and the second one is a very dangerous thing. And it’s the enemy of great journalism.”

Days later, on Oct. 27, Lara Logan went on the air with her “60 Minutes” report on Benghazi and demonstrated not having taken her own earlier advice.

There’s a cautionary tale there for journalists everywhere.

Image credits: Lara Logan: Tommaso Boddi/WireImage. '60 Minutes' clock: CBS News.'The Embassy House' book cover: © 2013 Simon & Schuster/Threshold Editions. Dylan Davies: '60 Minutes.' George W. Bush in uniform: public domain? Mary Mapes: CBS News. Joseph Burkett and Lara Logan: via Lindsey Graham: CBS News.

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