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Considering Confirmation Bias at CBS News

By Ben L. Kaufman · December 31st, 2013 · On Second Thought
We can learn from CBS News’ retreat from another major story after fiercely defending its veracity.

The primary lesson is the havoc that “confirmation bias” can inflict on news gathering.

A secondary lesson is that journalistic integrity is fragile and CBS News is suffering self-inflicted wounds from its  unprincipled search for ratings. 

Confirmation bias occurs when we favor information that agrees with us and tend to disregard information that doesn’t agree or contradicts what we believe and hope to achieve. 

That bedeviled chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan when they convinced themselves that they had a new angle on the deadly terrorist raid on America’s consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

They got it wrong and Jeff Fager, their boss as executive producer and chairman of CBS News, let them take the fall even though he maintained, “As executive producer I am responsible for what gets on the air.” 

Fager put Logan and McClellan on “leave of absence” and initiated what proved to be a scathing review of their flawed Oct. 27 story for 60 Minutes.  

Logan issued an on-air apology and CBS News retracted the story. 

CBS News and Fager drew no lessons from this affair or the internal investigation that followed. Instead, 60 Minutes broadcast another ethically dubious segment this month: a puff job justifying NSA spying on Americans. You can read more about the CBS/NSA fiasco in Curmudgeon Notes. This column, however, is devoted to Logan/Benghazi and the role of confirmation bias.  

Logan’s stumble recalls CBS News’ 2004 accusations about W’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Doubts about CBS News’ sources and documentation buried the careers of anchor Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes.  

That, in turn, reminded viewers of CNN’s retraction of its explosive 1998 claim that the U.S. used sarin nerve gas in Laos during the Vietnam war. When serious doubts arose over sources and evidence in “Valley of Death,” CNN fired veteran correspondent Peter Arnett and his producers. 

In the CBS News stories and the CNN report, confirmation bias distorted producers’ decisions and left Logan, Rather and Arnett vulnerable to their producer’s decisions and critics’ attacks. 

I’ve never worked in TV so I asked Channel 19’s Hagit Limor, a veteran TV investigative reporter and past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, how this might happen. 

It varies depending on the network, program and team,” Limor said. “Generally, producers are reporters in every way but do not present on air. They may look into the initial tip, do much of the research, even do interviews and writing. 

“At 60 Minutes, producers and reporters are very much a team. They split responsibilities in various ways, with some reporters taking a more active role on some stories than others. Sometimes the producers will do a lot of the initial research and present it to the on-air reporters before the talent conducts the major interviews. 

“I don't know in this scenario who did what (on Logan’s Benghazi story) but they would both have lived that story for many, many months before it aired.

There would have been additional people living it with them, associate producers, photographers and eventually editors. Managers would have supervised the entire process. There is no vacuum there.”

Tom Brinkmoeller, a friend and longtime TV writer, agreed. “It can vary, depending on the shop and the correspondent. But, very often, it's been my experience that the producer does most or all of the research, lines up interviews, finds visuals for the story and often writes the script — with input, often, from the correspondent and the executive producer.” 

After Logan’s Benghazi broadcast, criticism focused on her reliance on Dylan Davies, a security contractor. He’d written a book on the consulate raid, The Embassy House, under a pseudonym.

That was Logan’s new angle amid generally confused reporting and Obama administration reactions. In his book, Davies describes seeing the attack on the consulate where our ambassador and three more Americans were killed.  

Davies became Logan’s key source despite his contradictory stories and admitted lying about his whereabouts during the raid. That’s confirmation bias.

The CBS News report quickly collapsed. 

Washington Post said Davies told employer Blue Mountain that he spent most of that night at his Benghazi beach-side villa, not at or near the consulate as he said in his book. According to his Blue Mountain company report on that night, Davies attempted to get to the compound, but “we could not get anywhere near ... as roadblocks had been set up.”

Thedailybeast.com said Davies denies writing that company report but Davies admitted giving a conflicting report to his superior. 

HuffingtonPost.com says Davies admitted to lying to a superior at Blue Mountain while insisting his 60 Minutes version was true.

New York Times caught Logan in another ethical misstep: She failed to tell viewers that Davies’ book was being published by a CBS subsidiary. The Times also said Davies gave conflicting accounts to the F.B.I. about his whereabouts the night of the attack. 

With credibility collapsing, CBS News took down the original report from its website and posted this: “We are currently looking into this serious matter to determine if he misled us, and if so, we will make a correction.” 

CBS News also asked Al Ortiz, its executive director of standards and practices, to investigate; HuffingtonPost.com reported his findings. 

Ortiz said Logan’s Benghazi story “was deficient in several respects.” Here is my edited version of Ortiz’s report with his quotes and rich examples of how confirmation bias distorted what should have been skeptical appraisals of sources and assertions: 

•   “Logan’s report went to air without 60 Minutes knowing what Davies had told the FBI and the State Department about his own activities and location on the night of the attack.”  

• “The fact that the FBI and the State Department had information that differed from the account Davies gave to 60 Minutes was knowable before the piece aired,” Ortiz wrote. “But the wider reporting resources of CBS News were not employed in an effort to confirm his account. It’s possible that reporters and producers with better access to inside FBI sources could have found out that Davies had given varying and conflicting accounts of his story.” 

• “The 60 Minutes reporting team conducted interviews with Davies and other individuals in his book, including the doctor who received and treated Ambassador Stevens at the Benghazi hospital,” Ortiz continued. “They went to Davies’ employer Blue Mountain, the State Department, the FBI — which had interviewed Davies —  and other government agencies to ask about their investigations into the attack. Logan and producer McClellan told Ortiz that they found no reason to doubt Davies’ account and found no holes in his story. But the team did not sufficiently vet Davies’ account of his own actions and whereabouts that night.”  

• “Davies told 60 Minutes that he had lied to his own employer that night about his location, telling Blue Mountain that he was staying at his villa, as his superior ordered him to do, but telling 60 Minutes that he then defied that order and went to the compound. This crucial point — his admission that he had not told his employer the truth about his own actions — should have been a red flag in the editorial vetting process.”

• “Davies told the 60 Minutes team that he had not written the  Blue Mountain incident report, disavowed any knowledge of it, and insisted that the account he gave 60 Minutes was word for word what he had told the FBI. Based on that information and the strong conviction expressed by the team about their story,  Fager, chairman of CBS News and 60 Minutes executive producer, defended the story and the reporting.”

• On November 7, Ortiz wrote, the Times “informed Fager that the FBI’s version of Davies’ story differed from what he had told 60 Minutes. Within hours, CBS News was able to confirm that in the FBI’s account of their interview, Davies was not at the hospital or the mission compound the night of the attack. 60 Minutes announced that a correction would be made, that the broadcast had been misled, and that it was a mistake to include Davies in the story. Later a State Department source told CBS News that Davies had stayed at his villa that night and had not witnessed the attack.”

• Logan reported that Al Qaeda fighters had carried out the lethal raid, Ortiz wrote, but “Al Qaeda’s role is the subject of much disagreement and debate. While Logan had multiple sources and good reasons to have confidence in them, her assertions that Al Qaeda carried out the attack and controlled the hospital were not adequately attributed in her report.”

• In October of 2012, “one month before starting work on the Benghazi story, Logan made a speech in which she took a strong public position arguing that the U.S. Government was misrepresenting the threat from Al Qaeda and urging actions that the US should take in response to the Benghazi attack. From a CBS News Standards perspective, there is a conflict in taking a public position on the government’s handling of Benghazi and Al Qaeda, while continuing to report on the story.”

• “60 Minutes erred in not disclosing that connection” between Davies book and its publisher, a CBS subsidiary."

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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