CNN Taking Fire For Using Slain Ambassador’s Journal As News Source

Good journalism? Or, bad ethics?

On Friday, CNN reported that it found the journal of the late Ambassador Christopher Stevens in the burned out wreckage of the U.S. Consulate in  Benghazi:

NEW YORK — Anderson Cooper revealedFriday night that CNN had found U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens’ personal journal following the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed him and acknowledged the network used the journal in its reporting without previously disclosing the source.

On Wednesday on his show, “Anderson Cooper 360,” Cooper told Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that “a source familiar with Ambassador Stevens’ thinking told us that in the months before his death he talked about being worried about the never-ending security threats that he was facing in Benghazi and specifically about the rise in Islamic extremism and growing al Qaeda presence.” The source, Cooper continued, “also mentioned [Stevens] being on an al Qaeda hit list.”

But what Cooper didn’t reveal at the time was that CNN’s sourcing was tied, at least partially, to Stevens’ thinking as written in his personal journal.

Here’s how Cooper put it on his show Friday night:

On Wednesday of this week, we reported that a source familiar with Ambassador Stevens’ thinking said in the months before his death, Ambassador Stevens talked about being worried about what he called the never-ending security threats in Benghazi.

We also reported that the ambassador specifically mentioned the rise in Islamic extremism, the growing Al Qaeda presence in Libya and said he was on an Al Qaeda hit list. The information for that report, like all of CNN’s reporting, was carefully vetted. Some of that information was found in a personal journal of Ambassador Stevens in his handwriting.

We came upon the journal through our reporting and notified the family. At their request, we returned that journal to them. We reported what we found newsworthy in the ambassador’s writings. A reporter followed up on what we found newsworthy, as I said, in the ambassador’s writings.

Both in Cooper’s statement and in an unbylined stories posted on Friday, CNN sought to portray itself as promptly complying with the families wishes and returning the journal. However, it seems clear that the news network was using it as a news source for several days, and had either made copies of it before returning it or had not returned it as promptly as they are representing to the public. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reports that CNN’s use of the journal as a source for its news reports was against the wishes of the Stevens family and appears to suggest that its decision to return the journal came only after prodding by the family and the State Department:

CNN said on its website that it notified the Stevens family “within hours” that it had the journal. The Stevens family then reached out to the State Department, which arranged a telephone conference call between members of the family and CNN. In that call, the family asked the news organization to return the journal and to not publish or broadcast any of its contents, according to a Stevens family member and State Department officials.

Family members and State Department officials said CNN agreed during the Sept. 14 conference call to hold off on using the diary until the family had a chance to review its contents.

Family members said they knew Mr. Stevens kept a diary but didn’t know what was in the journal obtained by CNN. The news organization initially provided the family with a transcript it prepared from the journal.

State Department officials said they then made arrangements for CNN to hand over the diary to an Italian diplomat in Benghazi. CNN says it handed over the journal to a third party acting on behalf of the family within a day of finding it.

The State Department enlisted the aid of the Italian envoy because U.S. diplomats evacuated the city after the Sept. 11 attack. The State Department said it had arranged for the Italian diplomat to safeguard the diary until it could be handed over to American officials in Tripoli, and that it would then be brought to the U.S., where the family would be able to take possession of it.

Family members and U.S. officials said they were surprised when CNN anchor Anderson Cooper appeared to use the information from the journal, attributing it to a source familiar with Mr. Stevens’s thinking.

The State Department also issued a statement in which it called CNN’s use of the journal as a news source “disgusting”:

NEW YORK — The State Department blasted CNN Saturday night for the network’s handling of a personal journal belonging to late U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, which was removed from the site of the deadly Sept. 11 consulate attack.

State Dept. spokesman Philippe Reines said in a statement to The Huffington Post that “given the truth of how this was handled, CNN patting themselves on the back is disgusting.”


Reines wrote that CNN “ultimately broke their pledge made to them only hours after they witnessed the return to the Unites States of Chris’s remains.”

“Whose first instinct is to remove from a crime scene the diary of a man killed along with three other Americans serving our country, read it, transcribe it, email it around your newsroom for others to read, and only when their curiosity is fully satisfied thinks to call the family or notify the authorities?” Reines asked.

For its own part, CNN defended its decision to use the journal as a news source given the presence of items in there that were arguably newsworthy:

 CNN did not initially report on the existence of a journal out of respect for the family, but we felt there were issues raised in the journal which required full reporting, which we did. We think the public had a right to know what CNN had learned from multiple sources about the fears and warnings of a terror threat before the Benghazi attack which are now raising questions about why the State Department didn’t do more to protect Ambassador Stevens and other US personnel. Perhaps the real question here is why is the State Department now attacking the messenger.

CNN is getting hammered for using the diary as a news source rather than giving it to the family as they requested or, as some have suggested, turning it over the government as “evidence” in the terror attack. It’s very tempting to be sympathetic to Stevens’ family and to argue that the journal should have been returned to them immediately. However, there’s also the fact that that Stevens’ journal apparently did contain material indicating the Ambassador’s concerns regarding the security situation for American diplomats in Libya as well as warning of attacks and security threats in the Benghazi area and elsewhere. These concerns were apparently corroborated by other information obtained by CNN reporters on the ground. Doesn’t this make at least this part of the journal newsworthy? If an Ambassador in a nation like Libya is expressing private concerns about his own security in the weeks and months before his death, isn’t that relevant information that the American public should know as we continue to uncover exactly what happened on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi? I understand the people who are sympathetic to the wishes of Stevens’ family and the idea that they should have been followed, but it strikes me that there are other obligations that journalists owe to their audience, and it strikes me that CNN would have been doing a disservice by choosing not to report this information.

As to the argument that this is “evidence”, I’m not really sure what it would be evidence of unless Stevens was writing a contemporaneous account of the attack while hiding in the Consulate, which doesn’t appear to be the case. Furthermore, even if it is “evidence,” it’s also newsworthy and, unless it involved something secret that would have jeopardized an investigation, or jeopardized lives, I don’t see the “evidence” argument as one that should have precluded CNN from making the information public.

At the same time, though, the issues aren’t quite that simple, as Taylor Marsh points out:

CNN’s lack of judgment in sharing the information without disclosing the source, which could have come with the statement under the video above as to the duty they felt to share the with the public the information, would have at least kept CNN from setting themselves and Anderson Cooper up to become the story and distract from facts surrounding the terrorist attack that are critically important.

Taking the heat from the Stevens family, the State Department, as well as the Administration is one thing. Keeping an oath to viewers and to the craft of journalism is another. Then there is the legality of having the personal journal in the first place and possibly betraying the trust of the family while taking the stance you’re doing a public service and keeping faith with the job of reporting the news.

A lot of elements to this tale, all of which are part of a terrorist attack that occurred on 9/11, with the latest elements heightening the mystery and unease of what actually led up to what occurred on a day of spectacular symbolism for America, but also our enemies.

Nothing is more important than truth and reporting it, not politics, nor a families feelings. Why CNN felt they weren’t on high ground here and didn’t act transparently leads me to believe there are other things we still don’t know. Because if this is all there is and CNN management couldn’t figure out how to report what had happened openly, honestly and through basic journalistic standards the network has got a lot bigger problems than ratings, though it would explain why they can’t get their act together.

That’s the part where CNN arguably screwed up. They should have revealed they had the journal from the beginning, and why they were using it. By not doing so, they have made it seem like they had something to hide and they ended up becoming the story when the story should be the fact that the American Ambassador to Libya had serious concerns about Embassy and Consular Security that apparently weren’t being dealt with by the State Department.

Update: Rick Moran makes in interesting point:

If it had been a personal diary, there might be a more pressing question whether any news organization should glean reports from, much less read, something so intimate.

But what CNN is calling a “journal” appears to be the thoughts of Ambassador Stevens set to paper to assist him with his official reports. If that is the case, CNN broke no ethical standard that I can see in using the information contained in the writings.


One can sympathize with the family on this issue, but the murder of an American ambassador and publishing his thoughts leading up to his death is a story with worldwide significance. CNN felt it had an obligation to selectively air those thoughts, only after confirming them with other sources, and keeping secret any personal and intimate details contained in the journal.

As Moran points out, it’s unlikely that any other news organization would’ve handled this differently. Although I do think that they should have been transparent about the source of their information, I tend to agree.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. mattb says:

    They should have revealed they had the journal from the beginning, and why they were using it. By not doing so, they have made it seem like they had something to hide and they ended up becoming the story.

    This. And I suspect the reason that they did not disclose the source is that they realized how ghoulish it would appear. And the decision not to mention it was made to protect CNN rather than the legacy of the Ambassador.

    Taking a more historical view, this sort of sourcing is nothing new in the news. In fact, it’s a pretty traditional form of journalism. What’s changed isn’t so much the method of sourcing, but concepts of transparency in reporting.

    We — the news consuming public — are much more interested in how the news is produced than ever before. Unfortunately, as with laws and sausage making, the more we know about how news is produced, the less palatable we find the results.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Something that seems to be missing from the coverage is that the journal is private property. There doesn’t appear to be any legitimate reason to believe that it was discarded. If you find a wallet with all the identifying material intact and you keep it, you’re stealing. That’s true whether you’re a truck driver or a newspaper reporter. The same is true of a personal journal. Knowingly receiving stolen property is also a crime and there’s no journalist exemption.

    CNN had the obligation to return the journal to its owners, presumably Amb. Stevenson’s heirs, as soon as it came to light because it wasn’t CNN’s property, it wasn’t in the public domain, and it hadn’t been discarded.

  3. LCaution says:

    Still not clear on all the details, but if I had found the journal, I would not have read it and would have turned it over to the State Department or family asap. It was the personal journal of a man who had just been killed. It simply seems ethically and morally wrong to me. But then I’m not a journalist used to asking bereaved family members how they “feel”.

    I’m open to arguments supporting CNN but right now it seems to me less like a journalistic coup and more like an invasion of privacy.

  4. @Dave Schuler:

    Based on the description are we sure this was a personal journal, or a series of notes Stevens kept in connection with his job?

  5. Eric Florack says:

    Bad ethics it may be but if it helped Obama’s re-election state would be holding a silence not unlike that surrounding Obama’s transcripts, and Fast and Furious. That suggests the Democrats are trying as ever to cover something, here.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Does it make a difference? That would make it government property not put it into the public domain. It’s still not CNN’s property or received under legitimate circumstances.

  7. @Dave Schuler:

    The Pentagon Papers were government property too. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t newsworthy, or that the Times and Post were incorrect for having published them.

  8. Ben Wolf says:

    @Dave Schuler: If the document in question is governmnet property then how is this any different than publishing leaked classified materials?

  9. Jeremy R. says:


    By not doing so, they have made it seem like they had something to hide and they ended up becoming the story when the story should be the fact that the American Ambassador to Libya had serious concerns about Embassy and Consular Security that apparently weren’t being dealt with by the State Department.

    Is there any evidence for that assertion? All recent reporting I’ve seen is that security at the embassy and missions, and Stevens’ personal security were tailored based on his wishes.

    Current and former officials said the security choices in Benghazi reflected efforts by Mr. Stevens to maintain a low-profile security posture and show faith in Libya’s new leaders, despite questions about their ability to rein in heavily armed bands of militants. Officials say Mr. Stevens personally advised against having Marines posted at the embassy in Tripoli, apparently to avoid a militarized U.S. presence.

    The security plan for the consulate also reflected confidence Mr. Stevens felt in a city where he worked for months with rebels battling Moammar Gadhafi’s rule. State Department officials said he didn’t consult with Washington before traveling to Benghazi, located in an area that has become notorious for its volatile mix of Islamist militancy and heavy weaponry.

    A State Department official said Washington doesn’t control the travels of ambassadors within countries where they are posted.

    The ambassador’s many admirers say a low-key approach to security was one of the factors that made him an unusually effective diplomat in the Arab world, widely praised for being both intrepid and approachable by those he wished to help.

  10. @Jeremy R.:

    I’m aware of those reports. I’d note that in a high risk situation it isn’t necessary the Ambassador’s job to decide what kind of security he gets, and more than it is the President’s job to decide how much Secret Service protection he gets.

  11. Jeremy R. says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The Pentagon Papers were government property too. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t newsworthy, or that the Times and Post were incorrect for having published them.

    It would be more newsworthy if it wasn’t just seven handwritten pages, some part of which includes his personal worries, and instead was some official document saying he wasn’t getting some security he’d requested. Based on CNN’s reporting off of the journal it’s the former and not the latter.

    Add to it CNN looting the journal from a U.S. government mission where the FBI was investigating a murder, the breaking of their promises to the family, their repeated attempts to pressure the family into reconsidering, and then their going forward anyway, their dishonest and convoluted source attributions — on the whole it’s just an extremely embarrassing episode for the news org.

    At this point, I’d almost just want them to publish the transcript so I can compare it to their shifting reporting, though obviously there’d be concerns about not revealing any personal information the family may want to keep private or any official state department business that may have been referenced.

  12. Jeremy R. says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I’d note that in a high risk situation it isn’t necessary the Ambassador’s job to decide what kind of security he gets, and more than it is the President’s job to decide how much Secret Service protection he gets.

    Sure, but that’s an entirely different line of criticism than claiming it’s a, “fact that the American Ambassador to Libya had serious concerns about Embassy and Consular Security that apparently weren’t being dealt with by the State Department.”

  13. Rick Almeida says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    If the journal wasn’t government property and/or wasn’t classified, those seem like very big good reason why this is different from “publishing leaked classified materials”.

  14. @Ben Wolf:

    Is it always wrong for a journalist to make public leaked classified information?

  15. Crusty Dem says:

    I’d note that in a high risk situation it isn’t necessary the Ambassador’s job to decide what kind of security he gets, and more than it is the President’s job to decide how much Secret Service protection he gets.

    Which is exactly what the president does. Unless you believe the Secret Service forced JFK into a top-down convertible in Dallas..

  16. Dave Schuler says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    In general, yes. There are circumstances under which it might be justified but this doesn’t appear to be one of them.

  17. I’m reminded of this story from earlier in the year:

    Whether the journal was intended to be private or not seems largely irrelevant. It was left in a publically accessible place. If we’re going to start arguing that reporters can no longer use information if another party intended it to remain private, you’ve pretty much made all investigative journalism unethical.

    To the extent we should be mad at someone, the real question should be why apparently no attempt was made to secure the ambassadors personal belongings after the attack, such that his journal was left lying around for anyone to pick up. Frankly, we should be glad it ended up in the hands of CNN, because it could have done far more damage if one of the militias had gotten hold of it.

  18. anjin-san says:

    Are the efforts by the people & government of Libya to drive the militants out of the country a non-event on OTB? It seems like a story that deserves some attention.

  19. @anjin-san:

    There was a post about it yesterday

  20. anjin-san says:

    @ Doug


  21. anjin-san says:

    Ah, found it. Shockingly, Jenos, Jan, and bithead are absent from that thread.

  22. bill says:

    “dear diary, i’m surrounded by blood thirsty islamists who want me dead- and my “compound” is an unfortified house with bars in the windows for security……time to buy more life insurance.”
    that sums it up.

  23. Ben Wolf says:

    @Rick Almeida: Hence I wrote, ” If the document in question is government property . . .”

    @Doug Mataconis

    I support near-universal publishing of leaked classified materials as a method of keeping government honest. I’m agreeing with you that this journal is no different if written on government issued office supplies.

  24. Ben,

    Then I misinterpreted your comment. My apologies.

  25. bill says:

    @Jeremy R.: If the FBI was there they would have found it first?! The journal isn’t the worst thing that’s missing, if our intelligence files are gone it could be way worse than this. Time will tell of course, whether it’s deemed newsworthy.

    (CNN) — Three days after he was killed, CNN found a journal belonging to late U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. The journal was found on the floor of the largely unsecured consulate compound where he was fatally wounded.

  26. Iguana Keeper says:

    Remember Pat Tillman? There were others too, and the military destroyed their personal documents.

    CNN did the right thing.
    The State Dept was trying to cover up a planned terrorist attack and deflect it towards an anti-muslim film and the killing being a spontaneous event.

  27. Iguana Keeper says:

    Is it wrong for the Government to say they found porn all over Bin Laden’s hard-drives, which I’ve heard wasn’t true. They said the same about Anwar Alawaki.
    Also the pictures of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in his undershirt and Saddam Hussein in his underwear with messy hair getting a medical checkup are also degrading. The press isn’t supposed to print those types of pictures.

    Double standards here, and CNN was respectful. The press has a bad habit of granting officials anonymity, I don’t see the parsing by Taylor Marsh as meaningful.

  28. eveandstyle says:

    Prayfully this will never happen but am I to believe if my home became a crime scene a news agency covering the story is allowed to pick up & take my wallet from the crime scene and broadcast the contents also use the term FOUND as in we found the victims wallet