Nov
11
2013

60 Minutes and Benghazi: When a Hoax Sounds Like a Hoax

cbs-benghaziMedia reporters and critics are devoting enormous space to a 60 Minutes report about Benghazi that has been retracted. The program explained that new documents contradict one of their main sources. But even without those documents, CBS should have suspected they were being hoaxed.

On November 10, 60 Minutes aired an unusual correction: It was no longer standing by their October 27 report about the attack on a US diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The segment has been disappeared from the CBS website–a dramatic step, for sure, and one that makes the brief correction that appeared at the end of the show all the more unusual.

On the new broadcast, correspondent Lara Logan explained that one of the main sources, a security contractor named Dylan Davies, gave an account that CBS could no longer trust to be accurate. 

But why did they believe him in the first place? Davies' story–which he also told in a book published by Threshold, a conservative imprint of CBS-owned Simon & Schuster–should have raised some red flags. Here's part of the CBS segment, where Davies is identified as Morgan Jones:

LOGAN: On a night he describes as sheer hell, Morgan Jones snuck into a Benghazi hospital that was under the control of Al-Qaeda terrorists, desperate to find out if one of his close friends from the US Special Mission was the American he'd been told was there.

JONES: I was dreading seeing who it was, you know?

LOGAN: Mm-hm.

JONES: And it didn't take long to get to the–to the room. And I could see in through the–through the glass. And I didn't even have to go into the room to see who it was. I knew who it was immediately.

LOGAN: Who was it?

JONES: It was the ambassador, dead.

So he sneaked into an Al-Qaeda controlled hospital and immediately found Stevens' body. Did this not strike CBS as dubious? If not that part, then surely this part of the interview would raise some red flags:  

LOGAN: Not long afterwards, Morgan Jones scaled the 12-foot high wall of the compound that was still overrun with Al-Qaeda fighters.

JONES: One guy saw me. He's–he just shouted. I couldn't believe that he'd seen me, because it was so dark, and he started walking towards me.

LOGAN: And as he was coming closer?

JONES: As I got closer, I just hit him with the butt of the rifle in the face.

LOGAN: And?

JONES: Oh, he went down, yeah.

LOGAN: He dropped?

JONES: Yeah, like–like a stone.

LOGAN: With his face smashed in?

JONES: Hm. Yeah.

LOGAN: And no one saw you do it?

JONES: No.

LOGAN: Or heard it?

JONES: No, there was too much noise.

A skeptical interviewer might start to wonder about this person's account, since it is, well, unbelievable. 

One of the most significant challenges to the story came when the Washington Post's Karen DeYoung (10/31/13) reported that Davies seemed to have told a different story:  

But in a written account that Jones, whose real name was confirmed as Dylan Davies by several officials who worked with him in Benghazi, provided to his employer three days after the attack, he told a different story of his experiences that night.

In Davies' 2-1/2-page incident report to Blue Mountain, the Britain-based contractor hired by the State Department to handle perimeter security at the compound, he wrote that he spent most of that night at his Benghazi beachside villa. Although he attempted to get to the compound, he wrote in the report, "we could not get anywhere near…as roadblocks had been set up."

He learned of Stevens' death, Davies wrote, when a Libyan colleague who had been at the hospital came to the villa to show him a cellphone picture of the ambassador's blackened corpse. Davies wrote that he visited the still-smoking compound the next day to view and photograph the destruction.

Evidently CBS was unaware of these documents–despite the fact that they initially defended their reporting by claiming they'd spent one year reporting the story.

The corporate media have been unusually dogged in pursuing the Benghazi story–which has been pushed by right-wing media and several Republican politicians. The level of attention has always been hard to figure out, but it seems to center on the fact that some Republicans believe that the Obama administration misled the country about who exactly attacked the US facility. The White House had initially raised the issue of an anti-Islam video being the motivation for the attacks, which some thought was  a coverup, since they contend the attack was actually a carefully orchestrated assault by Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

The controversy has been blown wildly out of proportion; as I noted (FAIR Blog, 10/17/12), there were contemporaneous media accounts from the scene of the attack where some of those involved declared they were furious about this video. 

In any event, the White House was not linking the video to the attack for very long, so as coverups go, it was never a very good one.  But Benghazi continues to be an obsession on the right; it's entirely possible that the drive to report "what really happened" led CBS to believe an unbelievable story. In the wake of the Benghazi attack, Logan gave a speech that included an impassioned call for a US military response (which was noted by Democracy Now! on November 11): "I hope to God that you are sending in your best clandestine warriors, who are going to exact revenge." So it seems possible that Logan's dedication to that particular cause may have impacted her judgment.

Her brief apology struck many observers as insufficient. Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone  (11/11/13) wrote, "Sunday's brief acknowledgment didn't resemble a news program seriously trying to get to the bottom of how it got duped."

Indeed, there are important questions to ask about how CBS mishandled the criticism of the story, and the segment itself.

But on some level the answer is quite straightforward: An unbelievable account of a dramatic event is probably unbelievable for a reason.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.