Now that 60 Minutes has apologized for airing a false eyewitness account of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, what can investigators, journalists and others who deal in facts learn from the incident, well summarized by the Columbia Journalism Review here?
- If something is as easily disprovable as the now-discredited claims CBS aired, some kind of robust fact checking should have turned up the same holes in the story discovered by The Washington Post four days after the story aired. The incident report by the discredited subject of the interview, Dylan Davis, has now appeared on the internet (here), and while it’s unclear how long the document has been publicly available, if it was available to the Washington Post it should have been gettable by a CBS News team that had been working on the story for a year.
We take the position at our firm that if we are about to report something shocking, explosive, case-changing or even just interesting to a client, we like to do as complete a job as we can in finding out everything there is to find out about that issue.
The worst thing that can happen is that a competitor or the client himself will easily contradict a finding in a way we should have been able to handle ourselves. Having an interview contradicted by another person can be bad enough, but having an interview subject’s credibility impeached by an easily discovered fact is a disaster. CBS had more robust internal fact checking, but dismantled it several years ago, according to the Huffington Post. Too bad.
2. Conflicts of interest should put an organization or red alert, and be disclosed. Davies wasn’t just any source. He had written a memoir for a publishing company owned by CBS. This book was scheduled for release two days after the 60 Minutes story, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
While both the book and the 60 Minutes story obviously would have had more than one set of eyes on the manuscript and story, a conflict of interest (killing the source for the TV story would have cost the publishing company money) demands even more rigorous scrutiny than an ordinary source. It’s just human nature: you want a fact to be genuine so you may let your guard down when material contradicts it. If the fact is going to make you or your company a lot of money, your guard drops even lower.
As lawyers we are governed by strict ethical rules that deal in conflicts. Not only do we have to disclose a financial interest in subcontractors we may use, our clients need to consent to those conflicts. As careful lawyers try to be in all walks of professional life, dealing with a consentable conflict is an especially touchy matter that would require more care than what CBS expended in evaluating Dylan Davies.