CBS News Chairman: Time To ‘Own’ Reporting Error In ’60 Minutes’

Eye makes case for being transparent over reliance on a source who misled reporters

Jeff Fager 60 minutes reporting error
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

CBS is hoping its admission of an error in an Oct. 27 “60 Minutes” report about last year’s attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, is enough to tamp down any negative reaction from the public.

The top executive at CBS News, who is also the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” said Friday that the news organization would take full responsibility for the production team on the segment giving undue credence to a primary source who described in vivid detail some of the chaos of the attack, only to find out the account was unreliable.

“Everyone in the news business knows that you can make a mistake, and there are people out there looking to deceive reporters. In this case, he was a very good one,” said Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and longtime executive producer of “60 Minutes,” in an interview.

Fager was referring to a source identified in the “60 Minutes” report as “Morgan Jones,” who claimed to  have been in the thick of the fighting around the U.S. diplomatic compound, even saying he hit a terrorist in the face with his rifle. The attack left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens dead and spurred intense scrutiny of how the State Department handled the incident.

“We like to think we are perfect as much as we can be. In this case, we were not,” said Fager. “The most important thing now is that we own it: We  made a mistake. We are sorry.” He declined to comment on how CBS News might review the journalistic procedures that led to the mistake in the “60 Minutes” report, and would not speak to any questions about whether staffers on the segment might be reprimanded.

Questions were raised about the “60 Minutes” Oct. 27 report on Benghazi quickly after it aired on CBS. As discovered by the Washington Post, Jones’ real name was Dylan Davies and he had given conflicting statements about his role during the attack.

“Questions were raised about whether his account was real, after an incident report surfaced that told a different story about what he’d done that night,” said Lara Logan, the on-air correspondent for the segment, in a Friday interview with “CBS This Morning.” She added: “He denied that report and said that he told the FBI the same story he told us. But what we now know is that he told the FBI a different story from what he told us. That’s when we realized that we no longer had confidence in our source, and that we were wrong to put him on air, and we apologize to our viewers.”

CBS News has already indicated a correction to the story will be forthcoming on this Sunday’s airing of “60 Minutes.”

Maintaining a reputation as a transparent news organization that works diligently is of critical importance to CBS, which has striven to present itself as a more serious alternative to news content offered by broadcast and cable rivals. While its “CBS This Morning” and “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley” continue to lag behind time-slot rivals at NBC and ABC in the ratings, both programs have eked out viewership gains over a significant period of time – no easy feat in an era when younger generations are turning away from the television for news and information.

CBS has moved aggressively to burnish the reputation with hard-won scoops. In September, “CBS This Morning” anchor Charlie Rose scored a coup by securing  an interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Fager was deeply involved in the behind-the-scenes process, traveling to Syria with the on-air host.

The news unit is also readying a digital-video news service that would make its content available on-demand via a host of emerging technologies, including over-the-top video distributors and videogame consoles.