On May 1st of 2011, Dateline NBC ran a story on Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph — just, you know, about their lives as comedians who’d transitioned to starring roles in the movie Bridesmaids, which had just been released. Sounds simple enough, right? Except that Bridesmaids was produced by Universal Studios. NBC Universal is the parent company of both Universal Studios and NBC, which airs not only Dateline NBC but Saturday Night Live, where both Wiig and Rudolph were castmembers. So basically what you had was an NBC News property airing a story that promoted both a Universal film and an NBC Television show, all under the guise of doing straight news. That’s how the ever-constricting ouroboros of corporate synergy works within a multimedia conglomerate. There’s never a time that someone isn’t thinking of some way to promote — or “cross-pollinate” — across entities or platforms. While it all sounds very conspiratorial, it’s just the nature of the beast these days.
Normally, it’s not the biggest deal on earth, although admittedly once you’re trained to look for the connections you’ll see just how prevalent and elegant in artistry they are. But when the news department gets involved in the process, that’s when thin ethical ice starts being treaded upon. And that’s exactly where 60 Minutes is right now — on very thin ice.
By now you probably know of the most prominent and disconcerting question swirling around 60 Minutes‘s botched Benghazi report from two weeks ago, the story it was forced to retract and apologize for. It’s something CBS has to address if it cares about its credibility: Did Dylan Davies’s book deal with a CBS property have anything at all to do with why he wasn’t properly vetted or was the entire story, in fact, aired specifically to promote a book?
Davies as you know was the security contractor at the center of the 60 Minutes report; the whole thing hinged on his account of what happened during the Benghazi siege. But it turns out that Davies wasn’t just some conscientious whistleblower who’d come forward in the name of truth and justice. He’d written a book that purported to shoot holes in the official story of what happened in Benghazi — and that book was being published by Threshold Editions, a Mary Matalin-edited conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster which had previously trafficked in the work of serial bullshit artists Glenn Beck and Jerome Corsi. Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS, which means that Threshold is owned by CBS. In other words, CBS News was promoting itself by running the Benghazi story. It was a glaring conflict-of-interest that Lara Logan and 60 Minutes never once disclosed during the piece.
At first glance it’s hard to imagine that CBS would risk the credibility of one of the most venerated news shows on television and one of its star players just to promote a stupid book — and it probably wasn’t as cut-and-dry as that. But make no mistake: there was corporate synergy of some kind at work in the 60 Minutes report. We know this because of the timing: Davies’s book, Embassy House, was scheduled for release two days after Logan’s story aired. Whether CBS News specifically placed the 60 Minutes report as a lead-up to the release or Threshold specifically placed the book’s release as a follow-up to the 60 Minutes report — or both entities simply coordinated around each other — well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Regardless, the appearance of malfeasance can’t be denied and must be confronted (again, if CBS News gives a damn about its credibility moving forward).
As I’ve noted again and again over the past few days, the problem with CBS’s silence right now is that it leaves us with no choice but to speculate because that’s all we can do. It’s entirely possible that Davies was merely given the benefit of the doubt during the vetting process — the really piss-poor vetting process, obviously — because of his prior relationship with a CBS property. It’s also possible that, yes, the entire story was one big blow-job for another arm of CBS. Certainly, a positive 60 Minutes story on Davies would be seen as a big boost for his credibility and would probably drive readers to his book in packs; that’s the kind of publicity you just can’t buy (and wouldn’t need to, in this case). What really happened behind-the-scenes? We don’t know yet. But it used to be that the mere appearance of impropriety was a landmine news organizations twisted themselves into knots to sidestep — that’s where the term “full-disclosure” comes from — and CBS News absolutely blew it on that front. There’s a lot more room for people to go looking for something you might be hiding when you’ve already proven that you’re willing to hide something.
One more time: CBS News has to address this if it cares about its credibility.
Although who can say if it does anymore? If it is, in fact, willing to use 60 Minutes as nothing more than real estate for advertising, it doesn’t. Not one bit.