Mediaite Exclusive: Internal Memo Proves That CBS’ Sharyl Attkisson Did Not Get Benghazi Emails Story Wrong
The revelation that the government’s talking points in the wake of the Benghazi attacks were edited to reflect the concerns of a variety of federal agencies has sparked a firestorm of controversy in recent weeks. Some early reports on that email exchange created the erroneous impression that the White House was more deferential to the concerns of State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who sought to remove from those talking points a variety of references suggesting the Benghazi attack was the result of a coordinated act of terror. The actual interagency email exchange, released by the Obama administration on Wednesday, showed that the White House took a far more hands-off approach towards the shaping of those talking points.
It has since, however, been suggested that the original depiction of that exchange was in some way fabricated by Republican operatives – who had access to the yet-unreleased email exchange – and fed to reporters as summaries. One reporter who has been accused of repeating falsified talking points given to her by Republicans is CBS News investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson. A memo sent to CBS News talent and producers, and obtained by Mediaite, shows that is simply untrue, and that Attkisson made clear in her original draft report that what she was privy only to “paraphrased” portions of “handwritten notes” that members of certain Congressional Committees were able to access.
On May 10, CBS News online published a story, “Emails reveal a flurry of changes to Benghazi talking points,” in which Attkission is named as the sole reporter. The original draft report shows that Attkisson’s draft for publication on the web included an important headnote which was omitted from the final report on published on CBSNews.com:
Note: *Emails were provided by the Administration to certain Congressional Committees for limited review. The Committees were not permitted to copy the emails, so they made handwritten notes. Therefore, parts of the quoted emails may be paraphrased.
There was a flurry of approximately 100 inter-agency government emails on Sept. 14th and Sept. 15th regarding the content of so-called “talking points” to release to the public regarding the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi, Libya. The email list included officials from the White House, State Department, CIA, FBI and others reviewing the talking points…
Nearly a week later, on Thursday, May 16, CBS Evening News reported that Republican sources had supplied reporters with misleading quotes supposedly taken from that email exchange which were intended to suggest that Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications for the president, had actively sought to ensure that the finished talking points reflected the State Department’s request that warnings the CIA had made about the security situation in Benghazi be de-emphasized. The actual interagency email exchange revealed, however, that Rhodes was not aggressively attempting to influence how those talking points were crafted.
CBS News reporter Major Garrett delivered the following report from the White House lawn on Thursday night after a thorough dissection of the email exchange on the revisions to the talking points:
“The White House released the real e-mails late yesterday and here’s what we found when we compared them to the quotes that had been provided by Republicans. One e-mail was written by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. On Friday, Republicans leaked what they said was a quote from Rhodes. ‘We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.’”
“But it turns out, in the actual e-mail Rhodes did not mention the State Department. It read, ‘We need to resolve this in a way that respects all the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.’ Republicans also provided what they said was a quote from an e-mail written by State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland. The Republican version notes Nuland discussing ‘the penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency (CIA) about al-Qaeda’s presence and activities of al-Qaeda.’
Shortly after that report aired, Mediaite has learned that Attkisson sent a memo, addressed to a CBS News list group which includes many producers and reporters, restating that her original report was based on paraphrasing:
Just an FYI: The talking point draft emails read to CBS News last Friday were from handwritten notes, and the attorney source explained why they were not direct quotes and could not be represented as such, as I noted at the top of my reporting for important context (highlighted in red below).
Benghazi Emails and Talking Point Revisions
CIA Chief Petraeus Expressed Frustration at Revisions
It is unclear why the fact that Attkisson had disclosed that the quotes were from handwritten notes and could be paraphrases was not included in the edited CBSNews.com piece and not made clearer in the subsequent CBS Evening News report.
In fact, given that Attkisson’s report on the emails was derived from notes and not the actual emails, it is remarkable how closely her report mirrors the exchanges in the email chain chronicling the development of the Benghazi talking points. Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher has compiled the quotes assembled by Attkisson and those in the actual email exchange, and her reporting is strikingly similar to what was actually written by members of the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Agency. Now that we know that she also disclosed that they were not direct quotes, it makes her reporting on the matter seem entirely defensible.
There is no defending misleading reporting, particularly on an issue of such grave importance as the American government’s response to the attacks in Benghazi. Unlike ABC News’ Jonathan Karl who wrote that he had “obtained” the emails, Attkisson never stated or implied that fact. More importantly, from a journalistic perspective, Attkisson’s memo establishes that this was not, as some have suggested, reckless reporting.
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