The old joke in journalism is "if your mother says she loves you, check it out." Reporters pride themselves on being skeptical of everything they're told. People lie to us all the time. It's a reporter's job to smoke out the truth, but one of the hardest lies to challenge is when someone is looking you right in the eye and completely making up a story.
The people at 60 Minutes are embroiled in a journalism scandal because they aired Lara Logan's interview with a professional gunman who claimed to have been in the thick of the action during the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. A man named Dylan Davies wrote a book called The Embassy House and 60 Minutes included him in their story about the Benghazi attack. Only after the story aired did they learn that Davies had lied to them and was not where he said he was during the fighting.
Lara Logan is a tough and gutsy reporter who let herself get taken. I have a lot of sympathy for her because I've done the same thing.
In the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991 I was in Kuwait City hunting for stories. A permanent cloud of greasy smoke hung over the city from the oil wells the Iraqi army had set on fire. Along the shoreline were empty bunkers and stockpiles of mines, rocket grenades, and ammunition, there just for the taking. Occasionally things just blew up.
One day I took a tour of a hospital with local doctors pointing out the looting and damage that had been done by the Iraqi army. Trailing along was an American-looking man in a surgical coat. I struck up a conversation with him and he said he was an ophthalmologist from California who had come to help. He said they were operating on children whose eyes were injured while playing with loose explosives.
It was the perfect story about Kuwaiti children wounded in war and the good American doctor who dropped everything at home to volunteer his skill. The next day I returned with a camera crew. We interviewed him, filmed him doing rounds, and assisting in surgery. He didn't act as the lead surgeon, but he had his fingers in the children's eyes. I was right there in the operating room.
I wrote the story and it aired that night on the evening news. My bosses liked the spot. But then a viewer from California called the New York office and said, "I know that guy, the doctor you featured in the story from Kuwait City... and he's not a doctor."
When the producers in New York told me, I felt sick and stupid. Who in the world would travel to a war zone and pretend to be a doctor? And what reporter would ask "Are you really a doctor?" But there was such a person and I had been suckered into doing a story about him. I went and found my "ophthalmologist," confronted him, and he admitted that he was not a doctor. The Kuwaitis grabbed him and put him on the next plane out of the country.
This happened in a war zone. We had intermittent power and it wasn't easy to make phone calls, but I could have reached my office in Los Angeles and asked them to check out the doctor. It just never occurred to me to challenge a man in surgical scrubs with his fingers in the eyes of a wounded child.
It appears that 60 Minutes also failed with a man who published a book and gave an interview telling a fantastical tale. It wasn't a matter of checking dates or the spelling of a name; they didn't check the whole story. A talk with the FBI and Davies' security company would have revealed that he had originally said he was not in the Benghazi compound during the attack. It would have been nearly as easy as asking whether my doctor was really a doctor.
It made me sick when I heard that CBS had been duped. The good reputation of 60 Minutes is damaged and someone might get fired.
I like to think that given my experience in Kuwait I would have checked the truth of Dylan Davies' yarn. But I'm not sure. Lurking beneath the cynical disbelief of every reporter is a deep desire to believe what you are told.