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.