The Wrong Questions: Learning from the Lara Logan Debacle

By Karen Petree

Joe Hagan missed a great opportunity.

When Hagan decided to write about Lara Logan’s 60 Minutes Benghazi scandal, he had a chance to open a conversation with the public about how journalists navigate an increasingly corporatized and politicized media world while trying to hold true to the major tenets of journalism. That’s an important conversation to have in a climate where journalists rank low on public trust. But that’s not what Hagan did.

Lara Logan with CBS's "60 Minutes" March 18, 2013.  Photo by Spc. Steven Young.

Lara Logan with CBS’s “60 Minutes” March 18, 2013. Photo by Spc. Steven Young.

In October 2013, Lara Logan, then chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News, and producer Max McClellan ran a story on the terrorist attack on the American Special Mission building in Benghazi, Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on September 11, 2012.

The Benghazi story was very politicized already with Republicans hungry to blame Hillary Clinton’s State Department and the Obama administration for alleged intelligence oversights they claimed led to the attack and Steven’s death. And after months, Logan had a new angle. For about a year, she and producer Max McClellan had been working on a story based around the account of a security contractor who had been working in Benghazi at the time of the attack. McClellan had been offered a sneak peek at the contractor’s book, which had been published by Threshold Editions, an imprint specializing in “conservative non-fiction” that is part of the CBS-owned company Simon and Schuster.

Appearing on CBS under the pseudonym Morgan Jones, the contractor, whose real name is Dylan Davies, recounted how he brazenly defied his boss’s orders and went to the American compound that night, fighting his way through attackers who Logan claimed were Al Qaeda.

It was the story Republicans wanted to hear. The next day, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, whom Logan had consulted on the story, vowed to block every single one of Obama’s nominees until a full investigation was opened and every survivor of the attack had testified before Congress.

It also appeared to be a story that Logan wanted to tell. Logan has never hesitated to speak her mind about terrorist organizations and their threat to the United States. In a keynote speech at the Better Government Association luncheon in 2012 she blamed Al-Qaeda for the Benghazi attacks.

“When I look at what happened in Libya,” Logan said to the group, “there’s a big song and dance about whether this was a terrorist attack or a protest, and you just want to scream, ‘for God’s sake, are you kidding me?’”

But the piece fell apart by the end of the week. The story Davies told 60 Minutes contradicted incident reports published in the Washington Post. The FBI report of the event, which Logan could have checked but never did, also told a different story. Davies never made it to the compound that night.

Logan issued a correction. But the story kept coming apart. On November 8, an ashen-faced Logan issued an apology on CBS This Morning.

“The most important thing to every person at 60 Minutes is the truth, and today the truth is that we made a mistake,” she said.

The media’s reaction to the scandal was mixed. Dan Rather, who left 60 Minutes in 2005 following a controversy of his own over his use of forged documents in a report on George W. Bush’s national guard service, agreed that Logan made a huge mistake, but he also felt it didn’t warrant losing her job.

“For whatever one thinks of what Lara Logan did or didn’t do with the story, in fairness it should be put against her whole record. She’s still a very young correspondent, but for a young correspondent she has a distinguished record — it should be seen in that context and that perspective,” he told Piers Morgan.

Media Matters was more critical and produced several sincere and thoughtful pieces on Logan, CBS and the Benghazi disaster.

But Hagan’s more-than-6000-word polemical exposé in New York magazine, “Benghazi and the Bombshell,” which pondered whether Logan is “too toxic” for CBS, has raised a lot of eyebrows, not so much for its criticism of Logan but for what he chose to criticize.

Some readers did praise the article. Erik Wimple at the Washington Post wrote that Hagan’s piece “documents all the journalistic and managerial errors that made possible this debacle.”

But not everyone could get past Hagan’s focus on Logan’s appearance and her sex life.

Danielle Valente, an editorial assistant at RT Book Reviews and a former freelance reporter, said, “Hagan did a pretty solid job with his feature on Logan and kept me engaged.”

“However, I did get this slight feeling that he was playing up her gender more than he should have,” Valente added in an email interview.

Others were troubled that in an article about her journalism, Hagan had brought up the sexual assault Logan had experienced while covering the Egyptian revolution in 2011.

In an article in Slate, Amanda Hess chided Hagan for hinting that the sexual assault which “earned Logan enormous goodwill from CBS colleagues “ didn’t happen the way Logan claimed. “Hagan may be trying to subtly nod to the fact that some other journalists and witnesses on the ground that night have contested Logan’s version of events, but if Hagan has any doubt as to Logan’s story, he should report it out, just like he did so doggedly for the rest of the piece,” Hess wrote.

Hagan also seems more preoccupied by Logan’s hotness than her journalistic integrity.

Allie Jones wrote in The Wire that “most of the time, it seems like he’s trying to figure out whether she’s too hot.” She wrote, “Logan’s good looks are well known, and obviously, they don’t have any bearing on whether she’s still a good reporter. But Hagan helpfully reminds us that she’s sexy anyway. Many, many times.”

And in spite of everything Hagan did say, he failed to address the most salient implications of Logan’s scandal.

For one thing, in over 6000 words on a disgraced journalist who got herself in hot water for failing to properly vet her sources, Hagan never even talked to Logan.  Ann Marie Awad, a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WRKF-FM in Baton Rouge, brought this up several times in an interview.

“I cannot reiterate enough times that I can’t understand why he didn’t even give Logan a chance to state her case–even one sentence saying Logan declined to comment or something would have put me at ease, but no,” Awad said.

Not only did Hagan fail to talk to the main character of his story, he also used Logan as a scapegoat and relied on tabloid articles, hearsay and anonymous sources at CBS in his quest to assassinate Logan’s character based on superficial qualities that have nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with the fact that Logan is an attractive blonde woman.

Allie Jones broke Hagan’s piece down to four parts: “The time Lara Logan did not know how hot she was,” “the times Lara Logan did know how hot she was,” “the times other people called Lara Logan hot,” and “Here are some hot things about Lara Logan.”

“Instead of focusing on how 60 Minutes ignored the usual fact-checking procedure for the Benghazi story, or how they chose to nab pre-fab stories from their sister companies, he mentions those details in passing while spending way more time talking about Logan’s bathing suits and her love life,” Awad said in an email.

Hagan didn’t seem concerned, either, as to whether Logan would return to her job at 60 Minutes. “Waiting in the wings is a new up-and-comer. Attractive, blonde, fluent in three foreign languages. Everybody is talking about 34-year-old Clarissa Ward.” After all, in a media environment where two-thirds of reporters are men, one hot blonde polyglot chick is as good as the next, in Hagan’s eyes.

A month after Hagan’s report, Logan was back at work at CBS. Media Matters isn’t too happy about it. David Brock, the founder of the progressive media watchdog group, said in a statement, “CBS indicated that they were serious about rebuilding its brand and taking accountability. Having Logan back on 60 Minutes shows the exact opposite.”

But the real story is much bigger than Logan. She messed up and soiled her reputation, as well as that of CBS. But Logan’s error wasn’t just flawed reporting. It was, as much as anything, a product of the reporting environment. A tidbit of Logan’s speech at the Better Government Association luncheon highlights that equally troubling issue in modern journalism and the role of the reporter.

“Al Qaeda changed the nature of journalism forever when they slit Daniel Pearl’s throat on camera,” Logan said. “They changed our currency. Journalists no longer had a value in reporting things and being witnesses. They became participants in the conflict and in the fight.”

How do journalists remain objective when one side is trying to kill the messenger?

And beyond that question are many more. Just as technology forces us to update the way we tell our stories, corporatization and an increasingly hostile world that maligns journalists should change the way we hold ourselves accountable.

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