Writing a correction was one of the least pleasant aspects of my job as a newspaper copyeditor. If I was writing one, it was probably because I was responsible for inserting a mistake while copyediting a story.
When you’re in the business of telling the truth, it’s painful to admit that you didn’t do your job in checking the information given or that you misinterpreted something and inserted an error. But part of telling the truth is admitting when you are wrong, not circling the wagons and defending something indefensible. Philosophers and screenwriters may see truth as a nuanced thing, but journalists don’t get to shrug off questions and insist that their work is truthy enough. If it’s wrong, it has to be corrected.
The CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes had to admit it was wrong in a Sunday evening apology. It had been duped by a man claiming to have a first-hand account of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. It’s hard to protect against a carefully planned lie, but the reporting by correspondent Lara Logan leaves questions as to whether enough was done to vet the story. The incident recalled a similar debacle by CBS News in 2004 that tarnished the news organization and the career of Dan Rather.
But putting the error aside, some of the strongest criticism against CBS News and 60 Minutes was over the initial reaction to the error. When the veracity of Dylan Davies’s claims came to light, CBS News didn’t immediately pledge to take another look.
“We stand firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday,” said spokesman Kevin Tedesco when told that the Washington Post had seen a written account of the incident by Davies and that it conflicted with what he told 60 Minutes.
Davies claimed the reports differed because he was forced to lie to his employer because he had been ordered to stay away from the compound. Plausible, but that put CBS News in the position of defending a story based almost entirely on the words of an admitted liar.
There is no nuance to the truth. If serious questions were raised about the CBS News source, the proper reaction should have been to immediately reexamine the reporting, not to “stand firmly” in public while undoubtedly doing some serious sweating in private.
On Thursday, the New York Times published an account of the report Davies gave to the FBI, and CBS, to its credit, immediately said it would review its story. The following morning, Logan went on CBS This Morning to apologize. She told viewers, “The most important thing to every person at 60 Minutes is the truth. And the truth is, we made a mistake.”