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Friday, November 15, 2013

Probing the Annals of CBS in 60 Minutes or Less: Benghazi as a Profit Center

The American CBS television network’s main news magazine, 60 Minutes, breached the network’s own journalistic standards in 2013 by not sufficiently verifying the veracity of Dylan Davies’s “eyewitness” account of the night of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Every human being makes mistakes; we cannot, therefore, expect the editors at 60 Minutes to be any different. Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS’s board of directors and executive producer of 60 Minutes, told the New York Times that the fiasco was “as big a mistake as there has been” at the program.[1] However, what if the lapse was intentional? What if the departure from the network’s standards was part of a determined effort at the network level to exploit a structural conflict of interest existing within the company?
Dylan Davies had been a security guard at the embassy. He described for correspondent Lora Logan the events he had witnessed on the night of the attack. Never mind that prior to the interview he had told both his employer and the FBI that he had not been at the mission on the fateful night. The easy explanation is that Davies lied and Logan failed to do an adequate fact-check on her interviewee. The media itself tends to go for such easily-packaged explanations.
Nevertheless, Davies was also the author of The Embassy House: The Explosive Eyewitness Account of the Libyan Embassy Siege by the Soldier Who Was There. No, I am not making this up; the man who had been nowhere near the embassy urged or went along with the emphasis on his status as an eyewitness to sell his book. That the publishing house, Threshold Schuster (a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster), was owned at the time by CBS, gave Fager the perfect opportunity to exploit an institutional conflict of interest under the more salubrious-sounding notion of “corporate synergy.”
As chair, Fager could help the subsidiary of a subsidiary while, as executive producer, also helping the network’s flagship news-magazine program. To the extent that he would make out financially, the conflict of interest is of the personal type; the “corporate synergy” gained by compromising journalistic standards (as well as any ethical mission statement) falls under the institutional type. I suspect the latter is the most operative here. Fager, or perhaps a manager at the corporate level, may have pressured the staff at 60 Minutes to not look very closely in checking up on Davies’s eyewitness testimony. Besides making good copy, the material would “cross-fertilize” another unit of CBS—the book publishing subsidiary—by selling more of Davies’s book.
Unfortunately, the exploitation of conflicts of interest typically go under the radar screen; the pubic typically has only a whiff of the proverbial smoking gun to go on. Moreover, Americans tend to ignore or minimize the need to deconstruct institutional conflicts of interest, preferring to go after personal conflicts of interest by making sure the self-enriched culprits feel some pain. In the case at hand, that Logan did not mention on camera that Davies is the author of a book being sold by a CBS subsidiary raises the possibility that she and her bosses had in mind something (i.e., the conflict of interest) in order for her to avoid giving any hint of it publically. In other words, the omission would be rather odd if the relationship were no big deal. Even so, with such conjectures to go on, the public is at a notable disadvantage even just in knowing that CBS exploited an organizational conflict of interest. As a result, managers know that going subterranean on such a matter is a workable course of action. To wit, Kevin Tedesco, the spokesman for 60 Minutes, replied to the enquiry of a journalist with a solid, “We decline to comment.”[2] When darkness prevails outside, it can pay to slam the door firmly shut. So much for the public interest; the private prevails in any plutocracy.

1. Rem Rieder, “Clock is Ticking for CBS to Probe Benghazi Report,” USA Today, November 15, 2013.
2. Ibid.