Behind 60 Minutes’ Bungled Benghazi Report

by Eliana Johnson
Lara Logan’s botched exposé is the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not often that 60 Minutes, the high church of television journalism for over four decades, becomes late-night comedy fodder. But that’s what happened earlier this month when Saturday Night Live’s cold open featured 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan (Kate McKinnon) giving a sympathetic hearing to disgraced Toronto mayor Rob Ford (Bobby Moynihan).

“I’m going to go on a show where people do believe me and will believe anything I say!” Ford declared. Cue the ticking clock and Logan, clad in a form-fitting dress and displaying ample cleavage. After Ford asserted that he had never used crack cocaine, smoked pot, or consumed alcohol, Logan cooed gauzily, “I believe you.”

Logan has been tight-lipped about the inspiration for this bit: The revelation that her October 27 report on last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, was riddled with inaccuracies and featured an unreliable star witness, a British security contractor who told her a riveting story contradicted by the one he’d put on record with his employer and the FBI. The exposé threatened to reignite the Benghazi scandal, which dogged the Obama administration and was the most glaring liability for Hillary Clinton’s nascent presidential candidacy. Instead, its failures seem to have closed the books on the scandal, at least temporarily.

Citing a memo from CBS chairman and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported on Tuesday that CBS News has placed Logan and her producer, Max McClellan, on leave. Fager cited the “journalistic review” into the Benghazi segment, which concluded it was “deficient in several respects.” Chiefly, the review faulted Logan and McClellan for their failure to vet the contractor’s account; in particular, it noted that the “wider reporting resources of CBS News were not employed” in an effort to confirm it.

Though Fager conceded that “as Executive Producer, I am responsible for what gets on the air,” the report, conducted by the network’s executive director of standards and practices, Al Ortiz, faulted nobody superior to Logan or McClellan. “There is still no account of how the verification process broke down, of who dropped the ball and when,” says former 60 Minutes producer Steven Reiner. “Personally, I think this is an extremely inadequate and perhaps inappropriate response.”

Such reviews are normally conducted by outsiders: In 2004, CBS charged former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press executive Louis Boccardi with investigating the journalistic breakdown that led to the Rathergate scandal, in which longtime CBS evening-news anchor Dan Rather claimed to reveal new documents damaging to George W. Bush’s record in the Air National Guard on 60 Minutes II. (They were discredited shortly after the segment was broadcast.)

In this case, by contrast, Ortiz has been asked to report his findings to his own boss. It’s a move Reiner says is “hard to figure out.” “Al Ortiz is in a very, very difficult situation being asked to investigate, essentially, his superior,” he tells me. Reading the report, he concludes, “I still don’t know where the editorial oversight was.”

The answer to that question begins with Jeff Fager, who since 2004 has served as the executive producer of 60 Minutes. In 2011, he was named chairman of CBS News, but he relinquished neither his title nor his position at 60 Minutes, a move one longtime television insider calls “absurd.” “It indicates you view the news division as a secondary annoyance to 60 Minutes,” the insider tells me. On Fager’s watch, the show has become something of an echo chamber where outside voices have largely been shut out, and the show’s ego, already healthy, has been put on steroids thanks to Fager’s own regard for the program.

Fager escaped, just barely, the Rathergate scandal of 2004 that turned 60 Minutes upside down. In the wake of that incident, four CBS veterans lost their jobs. Among those fired were Josh Howard, the executive producer of 60 Minutes II, a job Fager had vacated just three months earlier to take the helm of 60 Minutes. Fager had been the executive producer of 60 Minutes II when the Rather report went into production. By all accounts, he helped to create the culture in which Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, empowered by her explosive report on the Abu Ghraib scandal, was allowed to push the story almost single-handedly and, according to a television insider, she got “out of control.” A New York magazine report on the episode observed, diplomatically, that he emerged “remarkably unscathed by the events at his former show.” The television insider puts it more bluntly: “People thought he got away with murder.”

It’s good to be Jeff Fager — and his superiors will admit it. Universally recognized as an enormously talented producer and executive with a proven track record of success, some suggest nonetheless that he has also benefited from a whole lot of luck. Former CBS News president Andrew Heyward coined the term “Fager World,” a utopia where nothing goes wrong. The only time the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather got a bump in the ratings was when Fager served as executive producer. At 60 Minutes, he inherited a time slot — piggybacking on Sunday-night football — that has an enormous built-in audience, and where he could ride the wave of success created by the show’s legendary founder, Don Hewitt.

Less than a year after Fager left 60 Minutes II, the program was canceled. The reason: “Ratings, not Rather,” says a television insider. “The 60 model doesn’t work unless you’re in that [Sunday] time slot and have the fossilized audience.” One former 60 Minutes producer concludes, sardonically, “Fager’s golden. The only possible salvation for this country is if Jeff Fager is elected president.” The current dust-up, he says, “is the first dark cloud on his horizon, and it’s a big one.”

The scandal surrounding the botched Benghazi report has echoes of Rathergate: a journalist with a political predisposition to believe a story presented by a dubious source; an apparent failure to do the most basic fact-checking; and, perhaps most important, a lack of oversight from CBS brass.

In paid speeches and off-the-cuff remarks, Logan has often sounded more like a talking head than a reporter. At the Better Government Association’s annual luncheon last year, she mocked the Obama administration for sending the FBI to investigate the Benghazi attack and urged it 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.” In the wake of Michael Hastings’s bombshell Rolling Stone report that led to the dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal, she criticized Hastings for violating an “unspoken agreement” not to report on intra-military banter and concluded, “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way General McChrystal has.”

Logan sounded similarly starry-eyed recounting, in an interview with 60 Minutes Overtime, the travails of the now-discredited British security contractor Dylan Davies. Davies, she said, was “tortured by guilt that he was not able to save his friends in the U.S. compound,” and while “that may sound ridiculous to people who couldn’t think of anything more insane than rushing towards a burning building that is overrun with al-Qaeda terrorists . . . [Davies] is the kind of man who would do that and who did do that.” In fact, the Washington Post and the New York Times revealed that Davies told both his employer and the FBI that he remained at his villa through the night and did not visit the scene of the attack until the following morning.

CBS’s internal review confirms in general terms that Logan’s team failed to consult with others at CBS who could have prevented them from being misled by their key source. Sources say those colleagues include investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, who has reported aggressively on Benghazi, and senior correspondent John Miller, a former FBI spokesman who maintains sources in the agency. Beyond that, they say that 60 Minutes staff rarely consult with their colleagues elsewhere at the network. (One former 60 Minutes producer calls Logan’s failure to push to get the FBI report that ultimately undermined her source, either through CBS sources or another means, “inexcusable.”)

Though Logan and her producer, Max McClellan, claim to have worked on the story for over a year, conducting “exhaustive” research along the way (“dozens and dozens and dozens” of interviews, McClellan said, possibly “over a hundred”), the piece was littered with inaccuracies. McClatchy DC combed the transcript and found not merely a bad source but brought into question the totality of the reporting in the piece. It pointed out the following factual errors: Logan’s assertion that al-Qaeda carried out the attack (experts agree Ansar al-Sharia, a local militia connected to al-Qaeda, was the primary perpetrator); her claim that, on the night of the attack, the medical center in Benghazi was “under the control of al-Qaeda terrorists” (McClatchy’s own reports suggest it wasn’t); and her assertion that the U.S. is investigating the role of an al-Qaeda terrorist, now set to stand trial in the U.S. for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (a law-enforcement source told McClatchy that no such investigation is underway).

“She obviously really wanted to believe this story,” says a former 60 Minutes producer. “I look at some of the comments she’s made, and I think geez, that goes way over the line, over CBS News guidelines,” a fact that the network’s report made clear. “From a CBS News Standards perspective, there is a conflict in taking a public position on the government’s handling of Benghazi . . . while continuing to report on the story,” it concluded.

One television insider, who characterizes Logan as a grandstander, is even more biting. “I mean, other than putting herself in danger, she is not a reporter,” he says. A South African journalist whose name began percolating as an up-and-comer in journalistic circles after the 9/11 attacks, she was snapped up by 60 Minutes II in 2002 at the tender age of 31. Since then, Logan has certainly put herself in harm’s way: She was detained by the Egyptian army during the country’s 2011 revolution; sexually assaulted by a mob in Egypt’s Tahrir Square just weeks later; and shot at on the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike some of her less fortunate colleagues, she survived the 2005 cancellation of 60 Minutes II and has since then been at the original program. She has won admiration, and plaudits, along the way. 

Logan also has an important backer at CBS who one former 60 Minutes producer has described as her “patron”: Jeff Fager. “Jeff was very, very, very instrumental in the success of her career,” the producer says. “It’s more than he is her executive producer and chairman of CBS News; he is also her champion.” While he describes Logan as a “unique talent,” he says that the latest scandal is not the first time she has stirred controversy at the network. “She was a controversial figure before this,” he tells me.

Indeed, Logan’s arrival at CBS, where she replaced legendary correspondent Carol Marin, caused a stir. The tabloid coverage of Logan’s move hinted at the fact that she has inspired resentment for using her good looks to her advantage. The U.K.’s Sun, under the headline “Put Those Bazookas Away, Lara,” had reported months earlier that Logan was reprimanded for wearing “low-cut tops” and “skimpy outfits” on a military base in Afghanistan. Former CNN president Andrew Heyward had announced that he could no longer afford Marin and her two producers, but the Chicago Sun-Times was having none of it, snarking, “Somehow, the same folks who couldn’t find a place in the budget for Marin came up with a million bucks to hire Lara Logan as a contributing correspondent for 60 Minutes II.”

Though 60 Minutes has always been siloed — its offices even sit across the street from CBS News headquarters — sources say it has become more removed from the network’s operations on Fager’s watch, its power and primacy more unquestioned.

A 2011 e-mail from newly installed CBS News president David Rhodes conveys the extent to which the network’s news coverage was expected to orbit 60 Minutes. In a memo to the staff of the CBS Early Show, Rhodes steamed, “CBS News had a great weekend. And a bad Monday morning.” He went on to lambaste producers for their failure to highlight, among other things, two 60 Minutes pieces that had aired the night before. Rhodes concluded: “Let’s get with it. Where’s our reporting? Make sure it’s in the show.”

Since Fager’s elevation, the size of the invited audience for 60 Minutes’ legendary screenings — during which the show’s correspondents, producers, editors, and, at one time, CBS executives, watch and critique segments before they air – has also shrunk dramatically. Senior network executives, among others, used to serve as a backstop. One television insider tells me, “Now it’s just Fager, the correspondent, the producer, the video editor, and maybe Bill Owens,” the show’s executive editor. The presence of network executives not affiliated with 60 Minutes – with the exception of Fager himself — has been eliminated entirely.

“I hope [Fager will] take a look and realize, gee, maybe I do need somebody else in there, a backstop,” says one former producer. Reiner tells me that Logan’s Benghazi blunder has raised a painful question. “Are there any sufficient checks and balances that exist that can serve as a potential yellow light when a big-name, big-ticket correspondent has got a big story in the back of her truck and is driving it 80 miles an hour down the road?” At Jeff Fager’s 60 Minutes, it seems the answer is no.

Insiders doubt Logan will be terminated, and the mass firings that followed the Rathergate scandal, which inflamed the Bush White House and conservatives across the country, are unlikely to ensue in the case of her botched report. In the same way that Rather’s report was considered a direct strike at George W. Bush, Logan’s exposé could be seen as a spurious attack on Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive 2016 nominee, for her failure to heed repeated calls for enhanced security. But it has not sparked a similar outcry on the left, perhaps because many Democrats are uneasy about her candidacy. CBS News and vocal Democrats could well have collided head on. That they did not, in this case, is good news for Lara Logan and CBS and another stroke of luck for Jeff Fager. It is bad news for a show that might be well served by the scrutiny a public outcry would have brought.

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.