Sunday, December 22, 2013

Rieder: Obama, CBS pay price for stonewalling

It's just so basic: Never defend an indefensible position.

No good ever comes of it.

The more you dig in, the worse you look, the more you compound the damage. It's much better to confront the truth, no matter how difficult that is, apologize and move on.

To do the opposite, to borrow the great line from Talleyrand, is not only a disgrace, it's a mistake.

We were reminded of this lesson again this week by President Obama and CBS News.

Obama on Thursday at last apologized to Americans who are losing their health insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act, even though he had reassured them over and over and over that there was no way that would happen.

On Friday morning, CBS correspondent Lara Logan issued an unusual on-air apology for a clearly problematic 60 Minutes report on the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Both mea culpas are welcome. But both came after periods of refusal to confront obvious problems.

The difficulties with the Oct. 27 "60 Minutes" report, which included a purported eyewitness account of the raid from a security guard, surfaced in a Washington Post report Nov. 1. (USA TODAY also posted a story based on the "60 Minutes" report.) The article revealed that the guard, who went by the pseudonym Morgan Jones in the report but whose real name is Dylan Davies, had told his employer he had been unable to get "anywhere near" the scene of the deadly assault because of roadblocks.

Sounds like a problem, right? Your eyewitness had previously said his eyes hadn't witnessed anything that particular night. You figure you'd want to check that out, particularly given that Davies' declarations on the program had rekindled the partisan sniping over Benghazi.

In fact, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and other Republicans repeatedly cited the 60 Minutes report at a press conference at which Graham threatened to block confirmation of all of Obama's appointees until the administration let government witnesses talk to Congr! ess about Benghazi.

So what was CBS's response? "We stand firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday."

Not "We'll look into it." Not "We'll check it out." Just the reflex dip into the defensive crouch.

As questions continued to surface, the network continued to stonewall, as The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone has chronicled.

It was only after The New York Times reported Thursday night that Davies had also told the FBI he hadn't been at the scene that 60 Minutes shifted gears. "We are currently looking into this serious matter to determine if he misled us, and if so, we will make a correction," it said in a statement.

Friday morning, Logan, the correspondent on the story, took to CBS This Morning to say, "We will apologize to our viewers, and we will correct the record on our broadcast on Sunday night."

Clearly, CBS is not so good at learning from history, particularly its own. Its initial tone-deaf response is so similar to the way it first reacted to the obvious problems that immediately surfaced with Dan Rather's 2004 report on President George W. Bush's National Guard service. (USA TODAY had its own problems with the National Guard story.)

Almost immediately after the story aired, again on 60 Minutes, it became clear that there were questions about the documents upon which the piece was based. But instead of taking them seriously, Rather and CBS aggressively counterpunched for a week. The network ultimately apologized for a story and convened a commission to find out how things had gone so terribly wrong.

"I think that their delaying and obvious resistance to acknowledge the evident realities has kept the story alive a lot longer than it needed to be and was a lot more damaging to CBS than it needed to be," Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said at the time.

Obama has made a similar mistake over his completely discredited promise that people could keep their health ins! urance po! licies under the new law. "If you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what," the president had vowed. Doesn't get more definitive than that.

RIEDER: Obama should apologize over broken health care promise

But as numerous Americans had their policies canceled starting last month, the administration also opted to play defense. It wasn't until Thursday that Obama faced up to reality.

"I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me," Obama said in an interview with NBC News. "We've got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and we are going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this."

He would have been so much better off if he had forthrightly engaged the issue weeks ago.

You would think it would be clear to everyone. The classic Chico Marx defense -- "Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes" -- just doesn't work very often.

President Barack Obama speaks at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall about the federal health care law.(Photo: Stephan Savoia, AP)

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