There are some tenets of journalism that go beyond the basic directives of being accurate and fair. One is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. That means newspapers and broadcast are supposed to be a voice for the people who otherwise won't be heard, and to keep accountable those who already have power.
Unfortunately, that idea has been supplanted somewhat by the goal of coming up with the snarkiest tweet of the day, but there still endures the idea that journalists are supposed to hold powerful people accountable for their actions. But what about the accountability of a media organization itself?
CBS appears to have failed to heed another basic rule of journalism – that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The network's vaunted "60 Minutes" program aired an investigative piece a couple of weeks ago featuring a man, "Morgan Jones," who told a compelling story about rushing to the scene of the Benghazi attacks, heading off a terrorist with the butt of his rifle and personally seeing the still body of slain U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens. It was a powerful tale and a great interview, one that raised very serious questions about whether the U.S. government had done everything it could to respond to the assault.
It would have been a really great story if it were true, but it's looking a lot like it wasn't. Very quickly, the Washington Post unearthed an FBI report showing that Jones' real name was Dylan Davies, that the security contractor was nowhere near the compound during the attack and that he had only heard from someone else about Stevens' death. The paper also reported something "60 Minutes" surely knew, or should have known but did not reveal: that Davies had a book, "Embassy House," coming out that detailed his brave role in the tragedy. So why didn't "60 Minutes," which worked for a year on the story, not conduct this due diligence?
Forget the Internet claims that CBS is a tool of Obama administration critics, or any suggestion that the network deliberately ignored red flags. No matter how much people get mad at the media (and reporters get even madder at the media than most people do), the overwhelming majority of journalists really do want to get it right, and work very hard to make sure they indeed have it right. No one-day story is worth the hit to one's credibility if said story turns out to be suspect.
CBS issued an apology after an onslaught of criticism, but offered absolutely no explanation of how it happened. That's not enough. True, media organizations are private entities, so they don't have to release internal documents, and calls for the firing of reporter Lara Logan (who has otherwise shown herself to be a very solid and brave reporter) are inappropriate. That's a decision to be made by the network, not by those who watch it.
But if CBS wants to keep its credibility, it needs to explain how it missed obvious red flags. When someone is presenting a version of a story that makes him look like the action movie hero amid a bunch of bumblers, does that not raise a flag? When someone is peddling a book, does that not also raise concerns? And given the number of investigations already done on the episode, by both the administration and a hostile, GOP-led congressional committee, did anyone ask how it was that Davies' story was somehow missed by everyone else?
CBS says it was misled, which is surely the understatement of the year. The network has done great journalism in the past, and can recover and continue to do more. But to salvage its reputation, it's going to have to do a lot more explaining.