State Dept. says CNN's handling of slain ambassador's journal was 'disgusting'

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CNN used a journal written by U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens to report on his fears about being safe in Libya. A CNN correspondent found the journal in the wreckage of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in the days following Stevens' death there after an armed group stormed the facility. CNN reported it had the journal after it had assured Stevens' family it would not do so, because, the network said, several media organizations were reporting that it had dawdled before returning the journal.

Initially, Anderson Cooper reported on CNN Wednesday that "a source familiar with" the "thinking" of Stevens told the network "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."

Friday night, CNN acknowledged it had based some of its reporting on the journal, which correspondent Arwa Damon found in the wreckage of the U.S. consulate.

On Saturday, The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone wrote:

But it's still unclear to what extent the journal played into CNN's reporting, and most importantly, why the network did not reveal having seen it until Friday night on air. It's also unclear why CNN did not immediately return the journal to the authorities investigating the attack. (The State Department did not immediately offer comment Friday regarding the journal).

All those circumstances would soon gain focus.

CNN had returned the journal to Stevens' family after they rejected the network's request to report on it, Adam Entous and Keach Hagey said in The Wall Street Journal Saturday:

By finding and using Mr. Stevens's personal handwritten thoughts, CNN provoked an unusually sharp condemnation from top officials at the State Department, who called the network's conduct "disgusting."

"Not a proud moment in CNN's history," said Philippe Reines, senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

CNN explained its reporting thus:

For CNN, the ambassador's writings served as tips about the situation in Libya, and in Benghazi in particular. CNN took the newsworthy tips and corroborated them with other sources.

In a separate statement, CNN said, "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."

In another piece published Saturday, Huffington Post's Calderone acknowledged, "The Huffington Post contacted CNN Friday afternoon after receiving a tip that it had removed Stevens' journal from the U.S. consulate in Benghazi following the attack that left Stevens and three others dead."

The Washington Post's Erik Wemple found out more about CNN's attempts to ask Stevens' family for permission. The State Department's Reines tells him CNN Senior Editorial Director Richard Griffiths participated in a conference call with the family.

One clear takeaway from the conference call, says Reines, is CNN’s standing on the question of family deference. It was absolute, he says — Griffiths stated that the network would honor the wishes of the family not to mention the journal on air. “There was no other caveat or asterisk,” says Reines, whose account was corroborated by two other State Department sources who overheard the conference call.

BuzzFeed's Michael Hastings calls State's birddogging of CNN "bizarre"; he says the "fiasco" in Benghazi "appears to be largely — if not entirely — a State Department botch."

It was the State Department that failed to provide its ambassador adequate security; it was the State Department that fled Benghazi in the aftermath of the attack, apparently failing to clear or secure the scene, leaving Stevens' diary behind; and it was State that had taken the lead on the ground after the Libya intervention.

And indeed, State's choice of Reines as a spokesperson on this affair sends interesting signals. A 2011 profile of Reines and his relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called him her "caretaker of her public image through her iterations as rookie senator, front-runner presidential candidate, sore loser and resurgent secretary of state." Jason Horowitz wrote Reines has a "reputation for disinformation and dining out on the Clinton name" as well as "profound loyalty."

Reines gave a lot of acid quotes to Wemple, who nonetheless writes CNN's discovery of the journal "speaks well of CNN and its commitment to international reporting."

If CNN hadn’t been on the ground, after all, the Stevens family may never have recovered the journal. That a news organization, and not a U.S. government entity, scored the journal speaks ill of the latter.

If the network erred, he writes, it was in its transactions with Stevens' family. CNN shouldn't have asked its permission to report the contents, no matter how icky that felt:

The network appeared to be leading from behind when it asked for permission to use the journal in its broadcasts — an approach that suggests that the family had veto rights over the material. A more headstrong news organization would have politely told the family that it had recovered this personal effect, had reviewed it and was inclined to use the material. Had the family objected, CNN could have responded that it would take its wishes into consideration but would issue no guarantees.

Related: State department attacks CNN for doing basic journalism (Glenn Greenwald/The Guardian)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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