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CBS puts Lara Logan and producer on leave for Benghazi, but what does that mean?

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CBS News put correspondent Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan on leave Tuesday in the wake of an internal investigation that was critical of their flawed report on the attack on an American compound in Benghazi, Libya.

The Sept. 11, 2012 attack left four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, dead.

The forced leaves of absence coupled with the internal investigation acknowledging serious errors and conflicts in reporting the "60 Minutes" piece give the appearance of CBS News taking substantive action.

At least, that's the way some are reading it.

Media Matters, the liberal watchdog group that has dogged CBS News constantly since the report aired on Oct. 27 praised the network's action.

And, indeed, what the network did Tuesday is exemplary compared to the stonewalling and then lame apologies from CBS News the last few weeks.

But that's not saying so much, is it?

Let's wait and see how long the leaves of absence actually turn out to be. I am surprised the length wasn't announced Tuesday.

And why leaves of absence instead of suspensions? Am I wrong in thinking a suspension is tougher? And if all the failings and conflicts described in the internal report are true, don't you think suspensions were warranted?

One of the most damning findings is that Logan was in "conflict" with network policy for public remarks on Benghazi that she made in 2012.

Here's that passage from the report by Al Ortiz, who is in charge of standards at CBS News:

In October of 2012, one month before starting work on the Benghazi story, Logan made a speech in which she took a strong public position arguing that the US Government was misrepresenting the threat from Al Qaeda, and urging actions that the US should take in response to the Benghazi attack. From a CBS News Standards perspective, there is a conflict in taking a public position on the government’s handling of Benghazi and Al Qaeda, while continuing to report on the story.

Why is it a conflict? Because it could lead to the belief that Logan went into this report with a bias. That's a very serious matter. And why didn't anyone at CBS News and "60 Minutes" know about her views when she started reporting the story?

And why the soft language from CBS News chairman Jeff Fager saying he "asked" Logan and McClellan to take leaves? In the wake of what they did, don't you think they could be forced to do it? And don't you think everyone knows they essentially were?

CBS News needs to quit playing these kinds of games. The errors committed here were too serious for PR-speak

And the hard-nosed stance taken by CBS News until the Washington Post and others did the reporting and vetting for the network that Fager's own troops should have done needs to be explained as well. Why did it take the work of others to show CBS News its errors long after the network could have found them out for itself?

Yes, the report sounds tough. But Ortiz found almost nothing that others had not already reported and forced CBS News to acknowledge.

Fager said he ultimately takes the blame, and you can see that below.

Near the start of this debacle, I said Fager was kidding himself if he thought CBS News could stonewall and the trouble would pass.

I again say he is kidding himself if he thinks he can bring Logan and McClellan back after a leave and all will be well again with the credibility of the most important show on the CBS schedule.

Here's Fager's memo:

     By now most of you have received the report from Al Ortiz about the problems with the 60 Minutes story on Benghazi.

    There is a lot to learn from this mistake for the entire organization. We have rebuilt CBS News in a way that has dramatically improved our reporting abilities. Ironically 60 Minutes, which has been a model for those changes, fell short by broadcasting a now discredited account of an important story, and did not take full advantage of the reporting abilities of CBS News that might have prevented it from happening.

    As a result, I have asked Lara Logan, who has distinguished herself and has put herself in harm’s way many times in the course of covering stories for us, to take a leave of absence, which she has agreed to do. I have asked the same of producer Max McClellan, who also has a distinguished career at CBS News.

    As Executive Producer, I am responsible for what gets on the air. I pride myself in catching almost everything, but this deception got through and it shouldn’t have.

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

    There is a lot of pride at CBS News. Every broadcast is working hard to live up to the high standard set at CBS News for excellence in reporting. This was a regrettable mistake. But there are many fine professionals at 60 Minutes who produce some of the very best of broadcast journalism, covering the important and interesting stories of our times, and they will continue to do so each and every Sunday.

And here's part of the Ortiz internal investigation in his words:

My review found that the Benghazi story aired by 60 Minutes on October 27 was deficient in several respects:

–From the start, Lara Logan and her producing team were looking for a different angle to the story of the Benghazi attack. They believed they found it in the story of Dylan Davies, written under the pseudonym, “Morgan Jones”. It purported to be the first western eyewitness account of the attack. But Logan’s report went to air without 60 Minutes knowing what Davies had told the FBI and the State Department about his own activities and location on the night of the attack.

–The fact that the FBI and the State Department had information that differed from the account Davies gave to 60 Minutes was knowable before the piece aired. But the wider reporting resources of CBS News were not employed in an effort to confirm his account. It’s possible that reporters and producers with better access to inside FBI sources could have found out that Davies had given varying and conflicting accounts of his story.

–Members of the 60 Minutes reporting team conducted interviews with Davies and other individuals in his book, including the doctor who received and treated Ambassador Stevens at the Benghazi hospital. They went to Davies’ employer Blue Mountain, the State Department, the FBI (which had interviewed Davies), and other government agencies to ask about their investigations into the attack. Logan and producer Max McClellan told me they found no reason to doubt Davies’ account and found no holes in his story. But the team did not sufficiently vet Davies’ account of his own actions and whereabouts that night.

–Davies told 60 Minutes that he had lied to his own employer that night about his location, telling Blue Mountain that he was staying at his villa, as his superior ordered him to do, but telling 60 Minutes that he then defied that order and went to the compound. This crucial point – his admission that he had not told his employer the truth about his own actions – should have been a red flag in the editorial vetting process.

–After the story aired, the Washington Post reported the existence of a so-called “incident report” that had been prepared by Davies for Blue Mountain in which he reportedly said he spent most of the night at his villa, and had not gone to the hospital or the mission compound. Reached by phone, Davies told the 60 Minutes team that he had not written the incident report, disavowed any knowledge of it, and insisted that the account he gave 60 Minutes was word for word what he had told the FBI. Based on that information and the strong conviction expressed by the team about their story, Jeff Fager defended the story and the reporting to the press.

–On November 7, the New York Times informed Fager that the FBI’s version of Davies’ story differed from what he had told 60 Minutes. Within hours, CBS News was able to confirm that in the FBI’s account of their interview, Davies was not at the hospital or the mission compound the night of the attack. 60 Minutes announced that a correction would be made, that the broadcast had been misled, and that it was a mistake to include Davies in the story. Later a State Department source also told CBS News that Davies had stayed at his villa that night and had not witnessed the attack.

–Questions have been raised about the recent pictures from the compound which were displayed at the end of the report, including a picture of Ambassador Stevens’ schedule for the day after the attack. Video taken by the producer-cameraman whom the 60 Minutes team sent to the Benghazi compound last month clearly shows that the pictures of the Technical Operations Center were authentic, including the picture of the schedule in the debris.

–Questions have also been raised about the role of Al Qaeda in the attack since Logan declared in the report that Al Qaeda fighters had carried it out. Al Qaeda’s role is the subject of much disagreement and debate. While Logan had multiple sources and good reasons to have confidence in them, her assertions that Al Qaeda carried out the attack and controlled the hospital were not adequately attributed in her report.

–The book, written by Davies and a co-author, was published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, part of the CBS Corporation. 60 Minutes erred in not disclosing that connection in the segment.

Al Ortiz
Executive Director of Standards and Practices CBS News

 

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