The embarrassing flap resulting from the 60 Minutes report on Benghazi—broadcasting a sensational interview with a security officer, Dylan Davies, an apparently totally trustworthy, convincing source, who later turned out to be a con artist–makes me shudder.
I recall the number of times during my thirty years as a producer with 60 Minutes when I only narrowly missed being caught in the same kind of devastating, career-shattering trap.
But first, what does it mean to be a producer at 60 Minutes? Each report on the show has “produced by” written on the art work introducing it, but most viewers have no clue what “produced by” really entails.
Indeed, the great irony of 60 Minutes is a question of truth in packaging. That is, 60 Minutes, which prides itself on ruthless truth telling, exposing cant and fraud, is in itself, something of a charade.
The fact is that, although the viewers tune in to watch the on-going exploits of Lara, Morley, Bob, etc. etc., most of the intrepid reporting, writing, and even many of the most probing questions posed in the interviews, are not the handiwork of the stars, but much more the effort of teams of producers. associate producers, and researchers–who actually sift through and report the stories that the stars present–as their own exploits–each Sunday night.
The stars who pull down the seven figure salaries. But, it’s the producers and their assistants who are, far more than the stars, also responsible for checking out the veracity of those reports.
That’s a daunting task. Most investigative reports on 60 Minutes (or anywhere else) are usually told in terms of black and white, the bad guys vs. the good guys. The problem is most of life is played out in shades of grey. When you start digging into any supposed scandal you usually find that the bad guy is not all that bad; the good guy not all that good, and often the supposed villain is not really a villain at all. Or, as the former City Editor of the old Chicago Herald American, Harry Romanoff, famously said, “If you dig deep enough, any story collapses.”
Usually producers and correspondents recognize when they arrive at that point, and drop the project. But not always. Particularly when the devastating revelation occurs after you have already committed several weeks and tens of thousands of dollars to a report. It’s then that blowing the whistle is most painful, and the temptation to continue, in spite of what you have uncovered, the greatest. In addition to that is the constant pressure to be turning out “sensational pieces”; the rivalry, not just with other news shows, but, even more pronounced, among the producers and correspondents of 60 Minutes themselves.
There’s plenty of ammunition for error. Every week, scores of people write and call 60 Minutes about some incredible expose just waiting to be unearthed. They supply reams of documents, which, they claim, prove their cases, and convincing explanations about why such and such newspaper or congressman refused to follow up on their leads and trumpet the shocking truth.
The more questions you ask, the more convoluted their answers become. But you never know when one of them will pan out. So you never stop listening, studying their evidence, hoping that one of them will turn into something electrifying.
Some of them, like Dylan Davies, the focus of 60 Minutes’ Benghazi report, also have books to peddle.
That’s what happened in 1982. when I was in New York, researching a report about a particularly brutal Communist regime. We heard that a former top official from the secret police of that country, who had defected to the U.S., was writing his memoirs. I immediately contacted him. He showed up the next day in Mike Wallace’s office with page proofs of the book–plus the female CIA agent who had helped debrief him when he first arrived in the States.
The debriefing had obviously gone well. They’d married and she’d help him write his account. (This, don’t forget, was almost thirty years before Homeland!)
That same week a news story broke about two black U.S. Marine sergeants who, the government claimed, had let two Russian girls they were dating, into the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after hours. The government threw the book at both men, claiming they’d compromised Embassy security.
“You know,” the Communist defector in Mike’s office told me, “what happened in Moscow is nothing. In our country, the U.S. Ambassador’s wife was having an affair with the embassy driver.” The driver, like all nationals working for the embassy, was a member of that country’s secret police.
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