CNN came under fire Saturday from the U.S. Department of State for reporting on the personal journal of slain U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens disregarding objections from his family.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper Wednesday reported that the network had obtained exclusive information about “the climate that led up to all this,” referring to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and the subsequent killing of Stevens and three other Americans.
“A source familiar with Ambassador Stevens’ thinking said in the months before his death, he talked about being worried about what he called the never-ending security threats, specifically in Benghazi,” Cooper said.
“The source [is] telling us that the ambassador specifically mentioned the rise in Islamic extremism, the growing al-Qaeda presence in Libya, and said that he was on an al-Qaeda hit list,” he said.
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On Friday, however, Cooper returned with a piece of information that was missing from Wednesday’s report – the fact that CNN obtained “some of the information” from a personal journal of Stevens that the network found in the consulate premises.
“The information for [Wednesday’s] 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,” Cooper said.
“At their request, we returned that journal to them. We reported what we found newsworthy in the ambassador’s writings. Our reporting followed up on what we found newsworthy, as I said, in the ambassador’s writings.”
According to a CNN Wire report published online Sunday, the network found the journal three days after Stevens had been killed.
“The journal was found on the floor of the largely unsecured consulate compound where he was fatally wounded,” the report said.
“CNN notified Stevens' family about the journal within hours after it was discovered and at the family's request provided it to them via a third party,” it said. “The journal consists of just seven pages of handwriting in a hard-bound book.”
“CNN took the newsworthy tips and corroborated them with other sources,” it said.
By reporting on the slain U.S. envoy’s personal journal against the wishes of his family and corroborating the information with a mystery source, CNN provoked sharp condemnation from the senior officials of the State Department who termed the network’s conduct “disgusting.”
“Not a proud episode in CNN's history,” State Dept. spokesman Philippe Reines said in a statement to the Huffington Post. “Given the truth of how this was handled, CNN patting themselves on the back is disgusting.”
“What they're not owning up to is reading and transcribing Chris's diary well before bothering to tell the family or anyone else that they took it from the site of the attack. Or that when they finally did tell them, they completely ignored the wishes of the family, and ultimately broke their pledge made to them only hours after they witnessed the return to the United States of Chris's remains,” Reines said.
“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?”
“When a junior person at CNN called, they didn't say, 'Hello, I know this is a terrible time, but I'm sure you want your son's diary, where do you want it sent?' They instead took the opportunity to ask the family if CNN could report on its contents. Contents known only to Chris Stevens, and those at CNN who had already invaded his privacy.”
“A family member made it crystal clear directly to CNN that they wanted Chris's diary and would not make any other decisions until then. But that wasn't fast enough for CNN, so they helpfully offered to send the family the transcript they'd already made and passed around, to put a rush on it for their own purposes,” Reines said. “Anderson Cooper didn't even bother to offer any other explanation as to why the network broke its promise to the family.”
CNN responded with a statement Saturday saying it “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,” 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,” the network said.
The network defended its decision to report on the existence of the journal Friday following “leaks to media organizations” which “incorrectly suggested CNN had not quickly retuned the journal, which we did.”
“We reached out to the family of Ambassador Stevens within hours of retrieving the journal and returned it through a third party, within less than 24 hours from the time we found it. Out of respect to the family, we have not quoted from or shown the journal,” CNN said.
The spat between State Department and CNN has sparked a debate across news organizations with many shedding light on the fact that the news network was able to retrieve a crucial piece of evidence from the consulate premises three full days after the attack proved the government's incompetence in securing evidence.
“Any fair accounting of this dispute must start with an endorsement of CNN’s industriousness,” Erik Wemple wrote in his blog on Washington Post. “That a reporter from the network got to the scene and fetched an item that no one else had found 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,” he wrote.
When asked to comment on CNN’s report that Stevens was concerned about a “hit list,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that she had “absolutely no information or reason to believe that there’s any basis for that.”