Why network news is so bad at apologizing for itself

Why network news is so bad at apologizing for itself

A couple of weeks ago, 60 Minutes—the nation’s leading provider of stories about child prodigies, elephants, and child elephant prodigies—ran a story about the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya. The star of that story, a security contractor named Dylan Davies, described the scene of the attack, with a focus on his own heroics. Davies scaled the wall of the embassy compound! He cold-cocked an evil terrorist with the butt of his rifle! He turned into a giant man-eagle and flew away as shimmering rainbows of patriotism burst across the sky!

Okay, I made that last part up. But in fairness, Davies made up everything he said, too. As other media outlets have since discovered, Davies wasn’t even at the embassy that night—he showed up the next morning, maybe followed by shimmering rainbows of patriotism, but probably not. The upshot is that Lara Logan, the correspondent responsible for the 60 Minutes segment, revived one of the most charged news stories of the year only to discover that her central source was a complete fraud. As any journalism student can tell you, this is what’s known in the news business as a “pickle.” (Check your textbooks. I think it’s in the appendix.)

The bad news: Logan committed massive reportorial malfeasance. The good news: That means it’s apology time! TV loves apologies. When a sports star admits to drug use, say, or a president cops to infidelity, that’s the cue for zoom lenses to extend—an instinctive televisual tumescence. As these less-than-perfect specimens of humanity ask America to forgive them for their sins, TV becomes the one true path to salvation, thus allowing producers to live out their secret belief that they are God.

The trouble is that Logan’s apology, which aired on Sunday, was one of the rare occasions when TV has to apologize for its own mistakes. TV doesn’t like that so much. It never knows what to do with itself. And indeed, this was a terrible apology, practically devoid of substance or responsibility. Logan characterized her retraction as a “correction,” as if the Davies segment just needed a touch of Wite-Out to get shipshape again, and she said that 60 Minutes had simply “been misled.” That’s a little like saying the guy at the three-card monte table “misled” you about the whereabouts of the ace. CBS got conned, and the question is how.

On this front, it’s Logan who misled viewers, with a statement that bordered on falsehood. “After our report aired, questions arose about whether his account was true,” Logan said, strongly implying that there were no questions about Davies’ credibility before the story went to air. Yet by Logan’s own account on CBS This Morning last week, Davies had previously admitted to 60 Minutes that the story he told the show was not the same story he told his employer. So Logan et al. fell for the old “Yeah, I lied to them, but I’m telling you the truth!” trick.

Logan is making some of the same mistakes that Dan Rather made on 60 Minutes II in 2004. In a story about George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard, Rather presented a series of memos that purported to show how Bush shirked his obligations to the Guard. When the authenticity of the memos came under fire (justifiably so), Rather got cute. On the following week’s airing of 60 Minutes II, Rather tried to argue that while the memos may or may not be real, Bush really was a slacker, so the story is fine! That approach didn’t work out too well for Rather: The producer of the segment was fired, and CBS squeezed Rather out of his CBS Evening News job as quickly as they could. (CBS claimed that Rather’s accelerated retirement from the anchor desk wasn’t related to “Memogate,” but nobody believed that.)

It would serve Logan well to look outside of the news for other examples of TV broadcasters apologizing for their on-air missteps. The art of the televised self-flagellation is a rare and delicate one, but talented practitioners can turn the apology to their advantage. The best example happened more than 50 years ago. On January 20, 1961, Jackie Gleason debuted as the host of a new game show called You’re In The Picture. The game was extraordinarily dull, and it would probably have been forgotten except that a week later, Gleason used Picture’s time slot to deliver an extended apology for the show. Sitting on a bare set, Gleason contextualized Picture alongside the other “bombs” of his career—and when the half-growling, half-yelling Gleason pronounced something a “bomb,” you could almost feel it explode.

Shrouded in cigarette smoke and swigging from a coffee cup that he characterized as “chock full o’ booze,” Gleason endeared himself to the audience by musing on the unpredictable nature of show business, inviting them into his world of the entertainment elite. He made them feel like insiders. Gleason invited viewers to commiserate with him in bafflement that talented people could conspire to produce such a “catastrophe.” This was a deft tack. Not only did Gleason treat his talent as a given—thus heading off any critics who might use Picture to question his enduring appeal—but he also backed it up by proving his own greatness with every passing minute. After all, the crowd was laughing, so how could Gleason be the problem? He didn’t ask for forgiveness; he didn’t have to.

In recent years, David Letterman took a similar (if more anguished) approach when he came under fire for a crack he made about Sarah Palin’s family. In a monologue, Letterman had joked that while Palin was attending a Yankees game, Alex Rodriguez had “knocked up” her daughter. But unbeknownst to Letterman, Palin had attended the game with her then-14-year-old daughter, Willow. That put an unseemly edge on an already lame wisecrack, and Palin rallied her legions of followers to pillory Letterman.

Letterman’s ultimate apology was contrite where Gleason’s was swaggering, which makes sense given the subject matter, but his tactics were much the same. He drew viewers into his world, discussing the thought process behind a monologue joke and delving into the gap between a comedian’s intent and the audience’s perception. And like Gleason, he slipped in a laugh or two where he could, reminding the crowd of his comic prowess.

Lara Logan isn’t a comedian, but she is a TV personality, and the lessons of Gleason and Letterman apply more than you might think. The collapse of her Benghazi story called for her to do what the two comics did: bring viewers into her world while reminding them of the talent that makes her deserve her platform. In Logan’s case, that would mean applying 60 Minutes’ established brand of reportorial aggression to her own exploits. (Logan has made herself the subject of the story before under quite different circumstances. In 2011, Logan shared the story of a brutal sexual assault she suffered while reporting on the Arab Spring protests in Cairo. That story was as notable for its harrowing drama as it was for Logan’s courage in telling it.)

Faced with this crisis, Logan declined to take a hard look at the missteps of herself and her team. Yet she concluded with this sentiment: “The most important thing to every person at 60 Minutes is the truth.” As the capper to a mealy-mouthed apology, that statement is hard to digest. But it’s still telling, because it gets at the root of how 60 Minutes perceives itself. It’s not unfair for Logan to portray 60 Minutes as a show about truth, but it would be more accurate to say that it’s a show about 60 Minutes as truth-teller. In every hard-hitting story the show does, the implicit hero of the story is 60 Minutes, using the formidable power of its TV platform to expose liars and right wrongs.

When you’re accustomed to casting yourself as the hero, you’re going to struggle when it’s time to write a different role for yourself. Gleason and Letterman didn’t have the burden of self-created authority to contend with: They could cast themselves as the heel without betraying their essence. But the entire production of 60 Minutes is structured around an ideal in which the show is the paragon of truth. That’s why Logan’s apology was so unconvincing: Her instinct is to maintain a storyline in which 60 Minutes did no wrong—the hero was simply victimized by a villain greater than itself.

If this construction of heroism seems naïve to you, that’s because it is, but it’s a character flaw that runs through practically every newsmagazine on American TV. 60 Minutes’ successes far outpace its failures, but when it fails, it fails hard. It doesn’t need to be that way. It’s long past time for TV news to dispense with the fiction of its own unalloyed goodness. As Jackie Gleason and David Letterman showed, viewers are willing to restore you to your broadcasting pedestal, as long as you remind them why they put you there in the first place.