After a weekend of haymakers coming from the State Department regarding the story about Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s journal, CNN’s Anderson Cooper responded Monday night. He laid out the facts — how the network had recovered the journal, used its contents as the basis for reporting on the Benghazi, Libya, attacks and attempted to abide by the wishes of the Stevens family in keeping the matter quiet.
As you probably heard this weekend, the U.S. State Department spokesman blasted CNN, calling the network’s behavior “disgusting” and our handling of the journal “indefensible.”
Now, no one likes to be called disgusting, particularly by a spokesperson for the United States’ State Department. But we do invite you and them to hold us to the same standards that we hold others and try every night to meet ourselves.
Out of respect for his family, we have not quoted from his journal, not once, Ambassador Stevens’ journal. It was not e-mailed around the newsroom, as the U.S. State Department spokesman said it was. Remember, CNN discovered the journal three days after the assault.
Bolded text added to highlight pivot point: CNN protests about its respect for the Stevens family. State Department spokesman Philippe Reines, meanwhile, protests that the network betrayed the family by mentioning the journal on-air after pledging that it wouldn’t take such a step. But put this debate to one side.
All the rearview-mirror criticisms of CNN obscure that the network would have better served the public by being more aggressive in its journal-related reporting.
After all, the discovery of the journal at a charred and unsecured consulate site is a phenomenal story unto itself. It would have provided the public an early and clear window into just what sort of chaos reigned in Benghazi in the aftermath of the attacks.
Instead of issuing an early news story on the find, CNN ended up backing into the revelation, waiting a full week before announcing that it had recovered the journal — and only because other organizations had caught on to the story. Those organizations knew it was big news. CNN, too, would have handed reportorial transparency a victory if it had revealed, in its scoop of Wednesday night, that the journal was part of its sourcing as it reported that the late Ambassador Stevens feared that he’d fallen onto an al-Qaeda hit list.
CNN’s critics, including and especially the State Department, argue that the news outlet compromised the family’s privacy in doing what it did. Though it may have strayed from its pledge to the family, reporting on the mere existence of a journal and the fact that CNN had found it, that’s a newsworthy event that bears on privacy not one bit.
The surplus of deference to bogus privacy considerations summons another high-profile incident in recent CNN history. During the Republican National Convention in Tampa, a CNN camerawoman was reportedly the target of a vicious and apparently racist outburst. A pair of convention attendees allegedly threw nuts at her and said, “This is how we feed animals.” Even though CNN thus found itself on the front lines of a major news story, it gave spare details to its viewers and watched as the camerawoman told her story to a non-CNN blogger.