‘60 Minutes’ Benghazi bungle makes a crack in CBS' Great Wall of 57th Street

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Lara Logan's brief apology. ()
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Alex Weprin

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There's a joke that has for a long time been heard in the hallways of the CBS Broadcast Center: between “60 Minutes” and CBS News lies “the Great Wall of 57th Street.”

“60 Minutes” has always occupied a special place in the hearts of CBS executives. It is the most watched news program in all of television, an enormous feat unto itself. It is also the profit-driver for the division, helping to support the network’s other news programs in troubled times. It has long been a source of pride inside CBS that while NBC and ABC’s news divisions are propped up financially by soft morning shows, CBS News is propped up by a program known for its hard-hitting stories and interviews.

In part because of that legacy, “60 Minutes” always had a degree of independence from the rest of the news division. Stories from the program were produced in a bubble, a matter not helped by the fact that the show has its own separate offices on the north side of West 57th Street, across a literal chasm from the CBS Broadcast Center. Only rarely would journalists from the south side of west 57th street step in to help out.

When he was elevated to CBS News chairman in 2011, “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager promised to bring the “60 Minutes” ethos to the entire news division. That ethos was based on serious, credible, hard-hitting news. He also promised to break through that “Great Wall” and bring "60 Minutes" and the rest of CBS News closer together.

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To a certain extent he succeeded, relaunching the network’s morning news program as the serious and high-minded “CBS This Morning,” and having “60” veteran Scott Pelley take over the “CBS Evening News.” “60 Minutes” pieces and reporting have also become a daily part of CBS News programming, as the newsmagazine and the rest of CBS News work more closely than they ever did before.

The botched Benghazi story last week set that progress back, and some inside CBS think it could spur further changes at the organization.

Shortly after the Benghazi story was retracted by CBS, reporters and media observers began to wonder why well-sourced CBS News correspondents like John Miller (who has contributed to “60 Minutes”) were not brought in to help look into the claims made by security contractor Dylan Davies. “60 Minutes” still has not explained what went wrong in the course of its reporting, and how it became so reliant on the report of one self-described witness who had a book to sell. 

“They have always lived in their silo,” one CBS source said of the “60 Minutes” team. “That is going to have to change, [reporters at CBS News] could have helped them vet this story and prevented this fiasco.”

The ice between "60 Minutes" and the rest of CBS News has been thawing over the last two years since Fager took over, but the expectation now is that journalists from the main broadcast center will become a more regular presence in the “60 Minutes” offices.

With the Benghazi story, “60 Minutes” took a hit to its credibility that hadn’t been seen since Dan Rather’s “memogate” incident in 2004. Heads rolled after that story—which shone a negative light on President George W. Bush’s military service—fell apart. Rather would end up leaving CBS News, and the low-rated “60 Minutes II” on which it aired would be canceled.

CBS News took the issue seriously, but as the Benghazi story revealed, complacency can overcome even the most serious errors.