In his classic work “Democracy in America,” French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “the job of the journalist in America is to attack coarsely, without preparation and without art, to set aside principles in order to grab men.”
That was in 1835. Looks like things haven’t changed much, judging by the recent “60 Minutes” debacle, in which the venerable CBS program recently ended up with egg on its face over its sloppy reporting about last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Correspondent Lara Logan introduced us to “Morgan Jones,” who, we were told, was using an alias to protect his safety. “Jones” told a tale of derring-do and high-level betrayal that night that was suitable for a thriller novel or a blockbuster movie.
He’d rushed to the compound upon learning it was under attack and gone over the wall. He’d knocked out a terrorist with his rifle butt. He’d sneaked into an al-Qaida-controlled hospital where he’d seen the dead and burned body of Ambassador Chris Stevens (cue big dramatic music). “Jones” recounted how the ambassador himself had told him he was worried about security, but that his pleas for help had fallen on deaf ears.
The right wing went insane (I mean, even more than usual) with joy. Finally, they had something they could really use to turn the tragedy into political gain again. After all, it had worked so well for Mitt Romney.
They even had a sad-eyed hero who’d only been doing his job when he was betrayed by those in power. Twitter exploded with the right-wing war cry of “BENGHAZIIIIIII!” Lindsey Graham stomped his dainty little feet and said he was going to hold up every Obama nomination until he got some answers.
Well, he got some, but probably not the ones he wanted, as the story began to unravel. It turns out that “Morgan Jones” was actually Dylan Davies, a security contractor (i.e., a mercenary). He’d given written reports to both his employer, the British company Blue Mountain, and to the FBI. Those reports contradicted what he’d told “60 Minutes.”
For instance, he’d told both his employer and the FBI that roadblocks had prevented him from even getting to the consulate compound. Like the general in the old soldier’s song (the one who got the Croix de Guerre), “the son of a gun was never there.”
“60 Minutes” first said that it stood by its story. Then, when the FBI report was revealed by The New York Times, Logan finally went on-air with an apology.
How could this happen? What would motivate a TV news institution like “60 Minutes” to be so sloppy that it wouldn’t fact-check or do any vetting on this guy and what he’d said to other people before dropping his bombshells on the air? Well, it’s exactly the motivation described by de Tocqueville: “to grab men” (and, since this is the modern world, women).
This was a big story. It was dramatic. It would inspire editorials, tweets, and the usual yelling on the usual on-air yell-fests. Both “Benghazi” and “60 Minutes” would be on everyone’s lips for weeks. They’d probably even be cited in congressional investigations. And “60 Minutes” wouldn’t just be reporting big news, it would BE big news.
It’s the same motivation that once led the same program, in its now-defunct Wednesday edition, to run a story on the premature departure of George W. Bush from the Texas Air National Guard that featured alleged “official memos” that later turned out to be fakes. A lot of liberals fell for that one, because they wanted to.
Just as there are inconvenient truths, there are convenient falsehoods, and the “Jones” story was a very convenient one for CBS and its ratings, as well as for the right-wing rubes for whom no snake oil is too dubious to swallow if they think it might be the magic potion that makes the man they love to hate go away.
However, it’s the job of entertainment to show us what we want to see, and thus make money for the producers. Journalism should show us what we need to see, whether or not it’s popular or profitable. Like so many other news outlets these days, “60 Minutes” set aside principles “in order to grab men” and went for entertainment and ratings over actual reporting of the truth.
In the process, CBS, and the wingnuts who suddenly loved it (if only for one night), got snookered by a glib con man. Both managed to damage their brand even further than it already was.