Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Something to Know - 13 November

 If you watched 60 Minutes for the last two weeks, you saw an account of "Benghazi", and then a retraction the following week.  Sloppy and very questionable journalism was displayed by CBS News, and a real black eye for the program and an even worse problem for Laura Logan.  This is a good account of what happened:


"I didn't even have to go into the room to see who it was," a man calling himself Morgan Jones told Lara Logan, of "60 Minutes," on October 27th, remembering how he had glimpsed a body through the glass in a door. It was September 11, 2012, the night four American diplomats were killed in Benghazi.

JONES: I knew who it was immediately.
LOGAN: Who was it?
JONES: It was the Ambassador, dead. Yeah, shocking.

Logan looks shocked. And then, a few minutes later, when Jones—"a pseudonym he's using for his own safety," Logan says—reminisces about scaling a twelve-foot wall in a compound being overrun by members of Al Qaeda, she looks impressed. He encountered a terrorist, but, he says, "As I got closer, I just hit him with the butt of the rifle in the face."

JONES: Oh, he went down, yeah.
LOGAN: He dropped?
JONES: Yeah, like … like a stone.
LOGAN: With his face smashed in?
JONES: Yeah.
LOGAN: And no one saw you do it?

Morgan Jones, the man who doesn't need to go into a room to know what he'll see, and is, somehow, seen by no one when he does what he has to do. Watching the exchange now, it seems almost doomed to lead where it has.

"We end our broadcast tonight with a correction," Logan said this Sunday. She used Jones's real name, Dylan Davies. After the broadcast, she said, "questions arose about whether his account was true when an incident report surfaced. It told a different story about what he did the night of the attack." Davies, she said, "insisted the story he told us was not only accurate, it was the same story he told the F.B.I. when they interviewed him." When "60 Minutes" learned on Thursday that, in fact, the F.B.I. report "was different from what he told us, we realized we had been misled, and it was a mistake to include him in our report. For that we are very sorry. The most important thing to every person at '60 Minutes' is the truth. And the truth is, we made a mistake."

This is an odd statement and an understatement. To say that the incident report "surfaced" and told "a different story" isn't quite adequate: Karen DeYoung, of the Washington Post, obtained it, and it was apparently already among the papers turned over to Congress. The discrepancies extended to Davies's location that night: he was not in the compound at all but, rather, in his "beach side villa." ("We could not get anywhere near," the report read.)

Skepticism might have set in around the point when Logan recited how Jones, alone and unseen, "scaled the twelve-foot wall of the compound," and not later. On Monday night, Stephen Colbert produced a parody about a thirty-foot wall in the CBS newsroom beset by Hillary Clinton, swinging dangerous weapons—but self-parody is already in the "60 Minutes" segment, and has certainly been present in the Congressional response to the deaths in Benghazi. When Logan's report aired, Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been fixated on the idea of a conspiratorial coverup, saw it as more dark proof. If we hadn't heard about Jones, and the warnings he said he passed on, what else didn't we know? Graham cited "60 Minutes" as a reason for holding up the nominations of various ambassadors, an odd penalty, given that the incident involved a diplomatic outpost that could have used some help. After the report's integrity disintegrated, he said that he wouldn't give up.

"Correction," the word "60 Minutes" used, is a tricky one in this context. The program did not correct its report, in the sense of putting out an accurate version. The entire segment was pulled from its Web site. If the mistake was putting Davies on air, one might, in theory, imagine a correct version in which his interview is simply excised; that's impossible here, though. There is no report without Davies. He is either speaking or providing the point of view for more than eight of its fifteen and a half minutes; we rely on him not only for the sight of Ambassador Chris Stevens's body but for a phone conversation the two supposedly had a few hours before Stevens died—a particularly low form of fabrication, if that's what it is—as well as calls he says he had with Sean Smith, another diplomat who was killed; Libyan guards; and another unnamed American at the compound. ("I said, 'Well, just keep fighting. I'm on my way.' ") And he provides Logan with her guiding logic: "The events of that night have been overshadowed by misinformation, confusion, and intense partisanship," Logan says,

But for those who lived through it, there's nothing confusing about what happened, and they share a sense of profound frustration because they say they saw it coming.

Then we're introduced to Jones, the man with the gun who had it all figured out, and whom no one seemed to hear.

There are really two charges against CBS: that they were duped, and that the segment itself was an example, to borrow Logan's terms, of misinformation, confusion, and intense partisanship. Journalists make mistakes; sources lie. DeYoung's story ran in the Post on October 31st, and was followed up with passion elsewhere. (Dave Weigel has written aboutMedia Matters's role.) CBS lost some sympathy by apparently accepting, for a number of days, Davies's explanation that the incident report, which was in his voice but didn't have his signature, was the byproduct of lies he told a supervisor out of his immense respect for the man whose orders he hadn't followed. Perhaps Logan thought that tracked; her apology-preview appearance on CBS's "This Morning" only partly clarified the thinking. She was still defending Davies days after DeYoung's report, telling the Times that the criticism was political. "We worked on this for a year. We killed ourselves not to allow politics into this report." Then came the F.B.I. report, and there went the clarity Logan claims to have finally found in Davies's story.

It's a sad aspect of this story that Logan claims the segment was more than a year in the making. Where did the time go? In the fairly long piece, Logan fails to offer any real statement about the Administration's perspective. Only two other people are interviewed on camera. One is a military man who doesn't understand why the diplomats didn't get out of Benghazi months earlier. Another is a diplomat who doesn't understand why, at the critical moment, significant military forces didn't move into Benghazi from across the border. Davies, who is somehow supposed to tie these threads together, doesn't understand why, on the first day he first arrived in the city, he found Libyan guards "inside, drinking tea, laughing and joking" rather than looking sharp, and why everyone didn't heed a private contractor, like him. Not that Davies is identified as such: he's a "security officer," Logan says. "A former British soldier, he's been helping to keep U.S. diplomats and military leaders safe for the last decade." (Nor does she mention that his book, promoted in the segment, was published by Simon & Schuster, a unit of CBS, something she has admitted was a mistake.) But who knows what Davies said before or during the attack. His account is about as good as a spilled cup of tea, making the rest unreadable.

Those military and diplomatic questions deserve better answers, ones about policy choices rather than half-discerned conspiracies. You wouldn't know from Logan's report that the United States was engaged at the time in a historic and violent transition in Libya, in which the Qaddafi regime was overthrown with the help of our forces, or about that revolution's disordered denouement, or about the Obama Administration's decision to ignore the War Powers Act. Libya is presented as nothing but a place with a diplomatic mission and Al Qaeda's black flags in the street. Brave men swinging rifle butts are thwarted by craven ones in Washington who won't move their "military assets" into the country.

This is Benghazi, the story that burns all sides, those who use it as a weapon as well as their targets. (It seems to hurt less if one has no shame or a serious primary challenger, as is the case with Lindsey Graham.) That is largely because of how they pick their battles: Sunday-morning talking points; what word the President used; demands for more documents without, it would seem, the willingness to actually read what they say. The image of a rampaging Hillary Clinton is not far from the actual rhetoric around the story, which will only be revved up if she runs in 2016. She has, in some impatient, tone-deaf testimony, already provided some footage for commercials. It is strange to remember, given what a drag it's been on Obama's agenda, but Romney was the one most hurt by Benghazi in the debates, when Candy Crowley, the moderator, said that he was wrong about the President not saying "terror" in the Rose Garden immediately after the attack. Benghazi the scandal is full of absurdities. Libya, the real country, is the scene of its own national tragedy, and an American one, the walls of which have barely been scaled.

We have, I fear, confused power with greatness.
-- Stewart Udall

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