May 11th, 2014

CBS’ Benghazi Problem

Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources hosted by Brian Stelter, Joe Hagan, writer for New York Magazine, and Jeff Greenfield, political analyst, spoke to CNN about the difficulties CBS News has had covering the Benghazi story, including conflict of interest allegations surrounding CBS News president David Rhodes and Deputy National Security Advisor brother, Ben.

A transcript of the interview is available after the jump.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: For more than a year now, CBS has been hounded about its coverage of the 2012 consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, and all its follow-up stories about the attack. Many of the complaints bring up this family tie. David Rhodes is the president of CBS News, and his brother Ben Rhodes is the deputy national security adviser for the Obama administration.

Ben was involved in writing the talking points that are at the heart of some of the lingering Benghazi controversies. At the beginning of May, a new e-mail surfaced, one that Ben Rhodes sent in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy in Benghazi, portraying anti-American protest in the Middle East as being rooted in an Internet video and not in a broader policy failure.

The evening newscast on NBC and ABC covered that story about that new e-mail and the conservative outcry about it. But the evening news cast on CBS did not.

The conservative Heritage Foundation circulated this graphic, made to be shared on Facebook and Twitter, that implied that the family tie was affecting news decisions.

CBS denied that, and the next night, the evening newscast there did a long report about Benghazi.

Here’s one of the most interesting things about this Rhodes relationship. CBS has at times been so aggressive covering Benghazi that I’ve had sources describe it to me as overcompensating. In other words, a network perceived to have gone out of its way to pursue the story to inoculate itself against charges of a brotherly conflict of interest, and perhaps to appeal to conservatives and CBS sometimes gets tagged as liberal.

But it may be that very zeal that led to disaster. Last fall, Lara Logan’s “60 Minutes” report on Benghazi originally cheered by conservatives when it aired fell apart. She’s still on leave there.

And this spring, Sharyl Attkisson resigned from CBS. Here she is on this program with me a few weeks ago. Attkisson investigated Benghazi and conservative charges of a cover-up for months, but said that overtime, she had a very hard time getting her stories on the air. She declares some managers on the air, not Rhodes, but some others, were sensitive about stories that challenged the Obama administration.

This week there was a big feature in “New York Magazine” all about this. It was looking at what went wrong with Lara Logan story, and then it went beyond that, looking for problems at CBS News.

So, let’s bring in the author of that feature — Joe Hagan, who is in New York.

And in Santa Barbara, California, Jeff Greenfield who worked at CBS in the 1980s and again in the late 2000s. He was the senior political correspondent there.

Joe, Jeff, thanks to both for joining me.

Joe, let me start with you and your reporting from “New York Magazine” this week.

What was at the root of the problems with that story about Benghazi?

JOE HAGAN, NEW YORK MAGAZINE: Well, the problem was they trusted a source who they put on camera with a story that he had about Benghazi that fit, more or less, into a conservative narrative about it. It was published by a conservative — I’m sorry — the man who was on camera and published a book on a conservative imprint. None of this appeared on camera on “60 Minutes.”

When it turned out his story was false, you know, I think it has since come to light that Lara Logan was maybe blinded by her own agenda and “60 Minutes” didn’t check that, that there was a system failure, as it were, at CBS News, in fact-checking this piece and checking Lara Logan.

STELTER: Jeff, let me ask you, as someone who worked at CBS for news. You didn’t overlap with David Rhodes, who is now the president. But another Jeff, Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News for the last few years, has called the Benghazi story there on “60 Minutes” as big a mistake as there has ever been.

Has CBS done enough to account for that mistake?

JEFF GREENFIELD, FORMER CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: One of the most amazing responses to me was the lack of an independent outside review. Ten years ago when a question was raised about a Dan Rather report about George W. Bush maybe having political influence views to get him into the Air National Guard, CBS brought in a former attorney general and a very significant journalist, Lova Garte (ph), to do an independent review.

When I was at CNN and we stumbled through tail wind, that story about nerve gas in Laos, CNN brought in First Amendment attorney, Floyd Abrams.

In this case, CBS charged a veteran producer, a really good guy there to review this story. What that meant was he was judging the work supervised by Jeff Fager, executive producer of “60 Minutes”, and then reporting to the chairman of CBS News, that same Jeff Fager. In other words, his boss.

That to me was a serious a mistake, as there are report in the first place because there is no transparency there, there is no guarantee of independence. And that raised some real questions to me.

STELTER: Jeff, is this relationship between David Rhodes and Ben Rhodes, is this a real conflict of interest or just a perceived conflict of interest?

GREENFIELD: I think it’s more perceived. As I say, if David Rhodes was being influenced by Ben Rhodes, the Benghazi piece we’ve been talking about would never have aired because it shed bad light on the Obama administration had it been true.

But, you know, in my first days at CBS back in the ’80s when I was a media critic, kind of doing kind of what you do, I’ve seen this over and over again where it’s almost impossible to separate media criticism from public criticism. I rarely, if ever, saw a case where a conservative said that was a tough piece that CBS did about conservatives, but it taught me something. Or a liberal saying, that was uncomfortable news for me to hear, but that was good reporting.

People bring their political beliefs into judgments about conflicts of interest, into judgments about accuracy about stories, to a point where it’s almost impossible to separate those two points.

STELTER: And, Joe, in your piece, there is a sense of low morale at CBS. Is that partly because there hasn’t been a full accounting of what happened?

HAGAN: Well, it’s that, and it’s also that there is a lot of resentment around Lara Logan. Frankly, a lot of her coworkers there, you know, felt she had too much power. There’s some kind of competitive grousing, of course, but they also felt like she tarnished the “60 Minutes” and that she should leave.

Now, I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but it did — her error created a lot of resentment inside the network, and I don’t think Jeff Fager has fully dealt with that. And that’s why it’s still there. A lot of people at the network talk to me. There was a lot of anger, there was a lot of — and it was directed not just towards Lara Logan but toward Jeff Fager for not addressing this in a way they felt he should.

STELTER: Joe, in your reporting — do you sense any self-consciousness in CBS about this relationship, this brotherly connection, or did you pick up on that at all?

HAGAN: I didn’t, though I did report that Lara Logan had a sort of infamous speech that she gave in October 2012 in which she made her opinions known about American foreign policy and supposed lies that were being propagated by the Obama administration. David Rhodes was in the audience when she said those things and helped coordinated the speech.

So, you know, there was awareness of their star reporter’s political bent a year before her report. I never saw any evidence, really, that the Rhodes brothers were — I think they probably were quite fastidious about this because all eyes were on that, actually frankly. So —

STELTER: Let me share with the viewers. We did ask David Rhodes to come on the program and they politely declined on his behalf. But they did send along this statement. Let me put it up on screen.

“CBS News has provided extensive and often groundbreaking coverage of Benghazi from the beginning, informed by correspondents in the field and in Washington. David and his brother have taken great care to avoid conflicts of interest for many years, since David was at FOX News and his brother was at the 9/11 Commission.”

And for what it’s worth, I found David Rhodes to be a standup guy and also one of the smartest guys in the TV news business.

Jeff, given the fact you’ve spent so many decades in TV newsrooms, have you experienced other situations like this, where there’s a perceived conflict that notice by outsiders, but it doesn’t actually affect the news report?

GREENFIELD: Yes, it’s quite likely that people are going to be friends with or spouses or significant others with people in decision-making roles. And what the key to this, to me — I’m very old school about this, Brian — is show me what you’re talking about.

When I was at CNN, the president of the news division or the president of CNN America, Rick Kaplan, was an old friend of the Clintons. I was there during the Lewinsky, impeachment stuff. I never got a hint that we were supposed to trim that story one way or another because of that relationship.

STELTER: But, Joe, what should CBS do about that perceived news story? What can they do to reassure viewers that there was no bias here?

HAGAN: Well, I’m not sure what they can do. I mean, they can be open about it and also be diligent about covering everything in as balanced a way as possible and obviously not shrink away from critical reportage, which I — you know, the “60 minutes” report we’re talking about, the Lara Logan piece of last year, would not lead you to believe they were trying to hold their powder on this.

Now, though, it’s even more complicated by the fact that they’re perceived as having tried to do something that came out to be looking like a political head job on the administration, and on the other hand, they have the brother, and people think they’re going to give him too much leeway.

So, in a way — in a weird way, it’s already fair and balanced.

STELTER: That’s what CBS would say. CBS would say we’re getting hit from the left, and on the right we’re doing our job and this is proof of that.

HAGAN: Right.

STELTER: On the subject of Benghazi, I was persuaded by a piece on this week, talking about why people do or do not buy into conspiracy theories. It talked about how Benghazi is an example of this because once the whole group believes in the theory, believes something happened, that there was some cover-up in the White House, becomes very hard to disagree with that theory because then you are a member of the group.

Do you think that’s what’s happening in this case, Jeff?

GREENFIELD: No, I’ve seen this over and over again. This is just the latest example. Now, it isn’t to say that the administration can’t be faulted for spinning the story for trying to make it look good politically. That’s a perfectly legitimate source of inquiry. But if you link it to a field theory of conspiracy that you know is true because of your general political beliefs, you’re not necessarily going to get the best kind of information out of it.

STELTER: Jeff Greenfield, Joe Hagan, thank you both for joining me.

HAGAN: Thanks for having me.

GREENFIELD: OK. Thank you.