You know what the most powerful department is in any large media organization, the one you never under any circumstances want to run afoul of? Standards and Practices. It would be easy to say that the people in S&P are the caretakers of an organization’s ethical reputation, but more importantly than that, they’re the keepers of the brand. This is why the memo released yesterday by Al Ortiz, who’s the head of S&P at CBS News, was in some ways more important than the letter to the staff from CBS News president Jeff Fager that all of us got the chance to see. In fact, Fager’s memo was written in response to the findings outlined in Ortiz’s. Standards and Practices was the one holding Fager’s feet to the fire.
And Fager, by all accounts, should be in very big trouble right now. Whether he’s willing to cop to it or not, he shouldn’t be able to simply pin this whole Benghazi mess on Lara Logan and Max McClellan for one simple reason: he was in charge and he admits that whatever went bad, it slipped right past him. Here’s the salient line in Fager’s internal memo: “As Executive Producer, I am responsible for what gets on the air. I pride myself in catching almost everything, but this deception got through and it shouldn’t have.” The deception he’s referring to, incidentally, is Dylan Davies’s, since it’s assumed that whatever went disastrously wrong with Logan’s report, it wasn’t the result of intentional fraud on her or her producer’s part.
As Bill Carter reported yesterday over at the Times, Fager was 60 Minutes‘s EP when he was bumped up to head the entire news division; he inexplicably decided to try to juggle both responsibilities in the wake of that promotion and what we’re seeing now may be the result of having too much work piled on his plate. It used to be that 60 Minutes had a specific position set aside which existed solely to vet pieces that would run on the show top-to-bottom before air. That’s gone now but you can be sure that yesterday’s disclosure may lead to its coming back in the near future.
The problem is that while we now know that CBS understands something very big went wrong with Logan’s Benghazi report, the details of exactly what happened are still unclear to us — and may be unclear to CBS. How did so much go so bad? How did so many details and conflicts of interest that should’ve been glaringly obvious go unnoticed? There have been a lot of comparisons made between what happened in Logan’s report and the “Genoa” storyline in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, but I truly don’t believe what we witnessed here was something as blatant and unconscionable as Logan and McClellan purposely cooking the story because unless things are much worse than we think at 60 Minutes, there’s no way they would’ve imagined getting away with it (and it would’ve been their jobs had they been caught). Then again, an amateurish, seemingly systemic screw-up of this magnitude is uncharted territory for modern television news, let alone a source as revered as 60 Minutes. We have to be willing to concede that anything’s possible at this point.
Either way, it all happened under Jeff Fager’s command. And while he enjoys a generally stellar reputation in the business, he shouldn’t be able to duck the consequences of this. Benghazi should probably be his end.