I can’t claim I knew something was wrong immediately. But something seemed a bit off to me right from the beginning about Lara Logan’s “60 Minutes” report about the tragic – and now controversial – events at Benghazi, Libya.
We were told that the CBS News investigation had been in the works for at least a year. And yet less than 24 hours after the “60 Minutes” report appeared, I received in the mail the promotional review copy of “The Embassy House” – supposedly written by “Sgt. Morgan Jones.”
As the book editor of this newspaper, I’m the one who opens the book mail, and that struck me as cutting the timing with Logan’s story (in which “Jones” was prominently featured) awfully close after a “60 Minutes” investigative effort that we’re told had lasted a year.
The publisher was Threshold, a division of venerable Simon and Schuster, whose books often are featured on CBS News shows but always broadcast with a standard “open disclosure” disclaimer of corporate brotherhood with the parent company. (Lest anyone doubt those who categorize Threshold as “right wing,” all you really have to know is that their backlist involves members of the Buckley family, the Cheney family and Glenn Beck.)
It is of no matter to me on what wing a publisher is located. Nor am I naive enough not to have known for decades that what some might call corporate “synergy” between a TV news report and a published book is now a traditional part of book publishing in America, whether the book comes from elsewhere in the conglomerate or not. To decry it at this stage of the 21st century would be tantamount to revisiting, say, the outrages of 1970 to see if they still fly.
What instantly gave me pause, though, was a book promotional campaign so perfectly timed to follow – by less than 24 hours – the report on “60 Minutes” prominently featuring the author.
At what point – one had to wonder – did “Sgt. Morgan Jones” (whose real name was Dylan Davies) contribute to “60 Minutes” his tales of Benghazi eyewitness derring-do as a private security hireling?
What happened afterward has been known for quite a while now: It turns out that Sarge What’s-His-Name and his Made-for-the-Movies yarns of Benghazi differ from those much-less-exciting ones he’d previously told – once to superiors, once to the FBI.
That revelation has resulted in no less than two on-air apologies from Logan herself, one on “CBS This Morning” and the other on Sunday’s “60 Minutes.” “The Embassy House” has been taken off bookstore shelves and withdrawn from sale.
As a news source, then, he was cooked – parboiled, fricaseed and spread out on America’s vast groaning board of pseudo-outrage for any journalist who wanted to be part of the feast.
Two things seemed clear to me:
1. American news consumers need to recognize better how many of the reports they see are instigated by the needs of marketing and publicity or are affected greatly by them – for books, discs, movies, whatever. To change the basic rules, or even want to, in 2013 would be insane. But it also seems to me that those who are in the 24/7 truth business should be far more upfront – even insistent – on making sure readers and viewers know the provenance of things presented as news. Transparency, they call it.
2. Ratings or not, the mythology of “60 Minutes” as the luxury liner of TV news has been passé for decades. It’s an old, leaky destroyer. It has long seemed to me that “CBS Sunday Morning” – which is blatantly full to the brim with stories of transparent marketing origins – has far more integrity than is often found on the vastly more ambitious “60 Minutes.”
Which is why the most fascinating post-Benghazi “60 Minutes” commentary of all came from fabled and Emmy-winning former “60 Minutes” producer Barry Lando, long associated on the show with Mike Wallace.
In the Huffington Post, he wrote this (some of which was recycled from his commentary after Wallace’s death):
“The great irony of ‘60 Minutes’ is a question of truth in packaging, That is, ‘60 minutes,’ which prides itself on ruthless truth-telling, exposing cant and fraud, is, in itself, something of a charade.
“Although the viewers tune in to watch the ongoing exploits of Lara, Morley, Bob, etc., etc., etc., most of the intrepid reporting, writing and even many of the most probing questions posed in the interviews are not the handiwork of the stars but much more the effort of teams of producers, associate producers and researchers who continually sift through and report the stories that the stars present as their exploits each Sunday night.”
It’s “the stars who pull down seven-figure salaries. But it’s the producers and their assistants who are, far more than the stars, also responsible for checking out the veracity of these reports.”
“Most investigative reports on ‘60 Minutes’ (or anywhere else) are usually told in terms of black and white, the bad guys vs. the good guys. The problem is that most of life is played out in shades of gray. When you start digging into any supposed scandal, you usually find that the bad guy isn’t all that bad, the good guy is not all that good, and often the supposed villain is not really a villain at all. Or, as the former city editor of the Chicago American, Harry Romanoff, famously said, ‘If you dig deep enough, any story collapses.’ ”
In the “pitiless truth” business, in fact, there was one moment on CBS on Sunday that stunned me with the rawness of its truth and passion.
It happened, of all places, on the network’s noontime “NFL Today” when former Denver Bronco Shannon Sharpe had his say on the whole nationally inflammatory brouhaha over the Miami Dolphins’ locker room.
It was the racial epithet attributed to Richie Incognito that detonated the rawest emotion from Sharpe. Sharpe’s usual role on the “NFL Today” is provide the personality that the ex-coach (Bill Cowher) and the star ex-quarterbacks (Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason) lack. What I never expected to see was as much genuine outrage on TV as Sharpe expressed at what he knew of the bullying and hazing “culture of the Miami Dolphins locker room.”
By all means, you can go on YouTube in our blessed modern world and watch it for yourself.
You can watch his colleagues suddenly maintain respectful and stunned silence while Sharpe gets more “real” than anyone was prepared for.
And if you ever forget what real outrage looks like in the current journalistic world of so much synthetic outrage, you’ll long remember it.
It will always stay “true” to you.