CNN’s Stelter: CBS Was 'Overcompensating' on Benghazi, ‘Appeal to Conservatives’ ‘Led to Disaster’

CBS News has come under fire for a supposed conflict of interest between its president David Rhodes and his Brother Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor and CNN’s Reliable Sources did its best to dismiss the issue.

Appearing on Sunday, May 11, CNN host Brian Stelter argued that “CBS has at times been so aggressive covering Benghazi that I've had sources describe it to me as overcompensating. In other words, the network perceived to have gone out of its way to pursue the story to inoculate itself against charges of a brotherly conflict of interest.” [See video below.] 

Stelter doubled-down on his attack of CBS as supposedly being overly conservative:

The evening newscast on NBC and ABC covered a story about that new e-mail and the conservative outcry about it. But the evening newscast on CBS did not. The conservative Heritage Foundation circulated this graphic, made to be shared on Facebook and Twitter, that implied that the family tie was affecting news decisions. CBS denied that, and the next night, the evening newscast there did a long report about Benghazi. 

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Here's one of the most interesting things about this Rhodes relationship. CBS has at times been so aggressive covering Benghazi that I've had sources describe it to me as overcompensating. In other words, the network perceived to have gone out of its way to pursue the story to inoculate itself against charges of a brotherly conflict of interest, and perhaps to appeal to conservatives and CBS sometimes gets tagged as liberal. But it may be that very zeal that led to disaster. 

So according to Stelter, it was CBS’ desire to appeal to conservatives that drove them to cover Benghazi, not the fact that it was an important story worthy of in-depth coverage. What’s more, the CNN host asserted that it was CBS’ “zeal” in wanting to cover Benghazi that “led to disaster” regarding 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan’s erroneous Benghazi report. 

Stelter seemed to forget that the Lara Logan report was not the entirety of CBS’ Benghazi coverage, yet the CNN host dishonestly simplifies their overall coverage into one botched story. 

As the segment continued, Jeff Greenfield, former CBS News Correspondent claimed that the Rhodes conflict of interest doesn’t really exist: “I think it's more perceived. As I say, if David Rhodes was being influenced by Ben Rhodes, the Benghazi piece that we've been talking about would never have aired because it shed bad light on the Obama administration had it been true.” 

The former CBS Reporter concluded by dismissing the criticism being hurled at CBS. 

I've seen this over and over again where it's almost impossible to separate media criticism from political criticism. I rarely, if ever, probably never, saw a case where a conservative said that was a tough piece that CBS did about conservatives, but it taught me something. Or a liberal saying, that was very uncomfortable news for me to hear, but that was good reporting. People bring their political beliefs into judgments about conflicts of interest, into judgments about accuracy about stories, to the point where it's almost impossible to separate those two points.

See relevant transcript below. 


CNN

Reliable Sources

May 11, 2014

11:00 a.m. Eastern 

BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Good morning, and welcome to Reliable Sources. I'm Brian Seltzer, and happy Mother's Day to my mom at home in Maryland and all the moms watching at home. Let's start right there actually with family, with one high profile family, and a huge perceived conflict of interest at CBS News. For more than a year now, CBS has been hounded about its coverage of the 2012 consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, and all of its follow-up stories about the attack.

Many of the complaints bring up this family tie. David Rhodes is the president of CBS News, and his brother Ben Rhodes is a deputy national security adviser for the Obama administration. Ben was involved in writing the talking points that are at the heart of some of the lingering Benghazi controversies. At the beginning of May, a new e-mail surfaced, one that Ben Rhodes sent in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy in Benghazi, portraying anti- American protest in the Middle East as being rooted in an Internet video and not in a broader policy failure. The evening newscast on NBC and ABC covered a story about that new e-mail and the conservative outcry about it. But the evening newscast on CBS did not.

The conservative Heritage Foundation circulated this graphic, made to be shared on Facebook and Twitter, that implied that the family tie was affecting news decisions. CBS denied that, and the next night, the evening newscast there did a long report about Benghazi. Here's one of the most interesting things about this Rhodes relationship. CBS has at times been so aggressive covering Benghazi that I've had sources describe it to me as overcompensating. In other words, the network perceived to have gone out of its way to pursue the story to inoculate itself against charges of a brotherly conflict of interest, and perhaps to appeal to conservatives and CBS sometimes gets tagged as liberal. But it may be that very zeal that led to disaster.

Last fall, Lara Logan's "60 Minutes" report on Benghazi originally cheered by conservatives when it aired fell apart. She's still on leave there. And this spring, Sharyl Attkisson resigned from CBS. Here she is on this program with me a few weeks ago. Attkisson investigated Benghazi and conservative charges of a cover-up for months, but said that over time, she had a very hard time getting her stories on the air. She claimed that some managers at CBS, not Rhodes, but some others, were sensitive about stories that challenged the Obama administration.

This week there was a big feature in "New York Magazine" all about this. It was looking at what went wrong with Lara Logan’ story, and then it went beyond that, looking at problems within CBS News.  So, let's bring in the author of that feature -- Joe Hagan, who is here in New York. And in Santa Barbara, California, Jeff Greenfield who worked at CBS in the 1980s and again in the late 2000s. He was the senior political correspondent there. Joe, Jeff, thanks to both for joining me. Joe, let me start with you and your reporting from "New York Magazine" this week. What was at the root of the problems with that story about Benghazi? 

JOE HAGAN, NEW YORK MAGAZINE: Well, the problem was they trusted a source who they put on camera with a story that he had about Benghazi that fit, more or less, into a conservative narrative about it. It was published by a conservative -- I'm sorry -- the man who was on camera and published a book on a conservative imprint. None of this appeared on camera on "60 Minutes." When it turned out that his story was false, you know, I think it has since come to light that Lara Logan was maybe blinded by her own agenda and "60 Minutes" didn't check that, that there was a system failure, as it were, at CBS News, in fact-checking this piece and kind of checking Lara Logan. 

STELTER: Jeff, let me ask you, as someone who worked at CBS for years. You didn't overlap with David Rhodes, who is now the president. But another Jeff, Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News for the last few years, has called the Benghazi story there on "60 Minutes" as big a mistake as there has ever been. Has CBS done enough to account for that mistake? 

JEFF GREENFIELD, FORMER CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: The one mystifying part of CBS’s responses to me was the lack of an independent outside review. Ten years ago when   questions were raised about a Dan Rather report about George W. Bush maybe having political influence used to get him into the Air National Guard, CBS brought in a former attorney general and a very significant journalist, Lou Boccardi, to do an independent review.

When I was at CNN and we stumbled through tail wind, that story about nerve gas in Laos, CNN brought in a First Amendment attorney, Floyd Abrams. In this case, CBS charged a veteran producer, Al Ortiz, a really good guy there to review this story. And what that meant was he was judging the work supervised by Jeff Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes", and then reporting to the chairman of CBS News, that same Jeff Fager. In other words, his boss. That to me was a serious a mistake, as there are report in the first place because there is no transparency there, there is no guarantee of independence. And that raised some real questions for me.

STELTER: Jeff, is this relationship between David Rhodes and Ben Rhodes, is this a real conflict of interest or just a perceived conflict of interest? 

GREENFIELD: I think it's more perceived. As I say, if David Rhodes was being influenced by Ben Rhodes, the Benghazi piece that we've been talking about would never have aired because it shed bad light on the Obama administration had it been true. But, you know, in my first days at CBS back in the '80s when I was a media critic, kind of doing what you do, I've seen this over and over again where it's almost impossible to separate media criticism from political criticism.

I rarely, if ever, probably never, saw a case where a conservative said that was a tough piece that CBS did about conservatives, but it taught me something. Or a liberal saying, that was very uncomfortable news for me to hear, but that was good reporting. People bring their political beliefs into judgments about conflicts of interest, into judgments about accuracy about stories, to the point where it's almost impossible to separate those two points.

Jeffrey Meyer
Jeffrey Meyer
Jeffrey Meyer is a News Analyst at the Media Research Center.