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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 02:37 PM ET, 09/23/2012

CNN vs. the State Department: A long story

CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night brought his viewers some big news about the fatal Sept. 11 attacks against the U.S. consulate and nearby annex in Benghazi, Libya. All manner of details on the provenance and circumstances of the assaults that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others have been unclear or in dispute. So the information that CNN divulged found an eager audience. Here’s Cooper:

Now, you are looking at the scene just outside the consulate in Benghazi as a pro-American crowd tried to rush Ambassador Stevens, who was wounded, still alive, to the hospital. Tonight, [CNN] obtains exclusive information about the climate that led up to all of this.
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. 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.

Exclusive, foreign, terrorism-related, breaking news — that’s so CNN. The Web ate the story for breakfast and lunch the next day. On Friday night, Cooper returned to the topic of Stevens, this time with more compelling stuff:

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.
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.

Those are six very heavy sentences. And there’s an extensive story behind them, as the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post reported on Saturday. The family of the late ambassador had requested that CNN not issue any reports based on the journal — or even reference its existence — before the family consented. CNN agreed to abide by the family’s wishes, according to Philippe Reines, a State Department spokesman who listened in on a conference call between a CNN executive and a representative of the Stevens family.

State and CNN have spent a good part of the weekend trading nasty words on the spat. The length of this State Department tract alone makes clear just how peeved its leadership is:

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 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?
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.
When the seniormost levels of CNN were finally reached, they needed to be convinced to do the right thing. But not before they took a second shot at convincing the family to let them report on the contents. 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.
It was then made clear to them, for what must have been the fourth time in the same call, that they wanted to look at it privately, together as a family before making any decisions. Period. CNN finally heard their request enough times that they had to accept it, agreed to abide by the clear wishes of the Stevens family, and pledged not to use the diary or even allude to its existence until hearing back from the family.
But the Stevens family was never given that chance. I guess four days was as long as CNN could control themselves, so they just went ahead and used it. Entirely because they felt like it. Anderson Cooper didn’t even bother to offer any other explanation as to why the network broke its promise to the family. And only did so after being contacted by a reporter asking about the diary and their convoluted sourcing.
How do they justify that? They have yet to even try to defend the indefensible. Not a proud episode in CNN’s history. I’m sure there are many good people in the CNN newsroom equally appalled by this decision and wondering who above them authorized this course of action.

And CNN:

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 U.S. personnel. Perhaps the real question here is why is the State Department now attacking the messenger.

In sum, an extraordinary disagreement between this country’s foreign-policy shop and one of its more aggressive agents of foreign reportage. It all stems from the unique circumstances that unraveled on Sept. 11. The attacks on the consulate and annex were severe enough that the State Department evacuated all U.S. personnel from the compound, leaving, in effect, an unsecured crime scene.

A full three days after the attack, CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon found Stevens’ journal at the site of the Benghazi consulate, according to Reines.

Reines found out about the journal not long after a “return of remains” ceremony for Ambassador Stevens and the other victims at Andrews Air Force Base on Friday, Sept. 14. He received a call from State’s protocol office alerting him that someone from CNN had called the Stevens family with the news that they’d recovered the ambassador’s journal. To CNN’s request to report on its contents, the family member responded in the negative.

The Stevens family wanted State’s help, so Reines got in touch with a family member who confirmed the story for him.* Now Reines wanted to chat with CNN, so he e-mailed the person — CNN staffer Meredith Edwards — who’d reportedly contacted the Stevens family. No reply. Next on the list was Mark Whitaker, a ranking CNN news executive. Reines asked Whitaker whether the story he’d heard was accurate. Whitaker confirmed the gist of things but wasn’t forthcoming, recalls Reines: “He was clearly sheepish and defensive from the beginning,” says Reines. “He said, ‘We’re talking to our lawyers.’ And I said, ‘Mark, if you’re talking to your lawyers, then you know you’re on shaky ground.’”

That call was merely a prelude to more calls. Later that Friday, Reines chatted with Richard Griffiths, a key CNN editorial official who confirmed possession of the Stevens diary and explained that the late ambassador had procured it in Stockholm and had started writing in it on his last holiday. Reines discussed getting Griffiths on the line with the Stevens family to hash out the affair. Griffiths then told Reines how he’d pitch the family: That the journal provided a beautiful window into Stevens’s character and dedication to his work and that they’d like permission to go ahead and use it on air.

In a subsequent conference call with the family and State officials, CNN’s Griffiths “regurgitated” the script, Reines says. The family member listened and said no. Reines: “The family member thoughtfully and clearly told Griffiths that this was Chris’s personal property and that they believed it was their personal property now, that they wanted it back and that they would not make any other decisions about it” until they reviewed it. There wasn’t an insistence that they’d never bless its use, nor an indication that they would — just a preference that they jointly take a look at the contents before making any decisions.

Griffiths asked if the family would be okay with CNN at least saying that it had recovered the journal on the site of the attacks and had returned it to the family. Family member: No.

After that rejection, Griffiths told the Stevens family member that CNN had transcribed the diary and could pass it along in e-mail format. The family member declined to share an e-mail address, so the parties agreed that Griffiths would send the text to Reines, who would then forward it on to the Stevens family. Reines fulfilled his middleman role and says he has never glimpsed at the contents of the e-mail; nor has any State Department official had access to it, he says.

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.

The next step was arranging for Damon to pass the journal along to an Italian diplomat so that it could be delivered back to the family. ”The first order of business was getting this out of CNN’s hands, given their behavior and their insensitive interactions with the family,” says Reines.

Things were quiet until the following week, when Cooper began what Reines called “breathless” coverage alleging that Stevens believed he was on an al-Qaeda hit list. That information, in Cooper’s wording, was based on an anonymous source. “They constructed something that allowed them to satisfy their minimal journalistic standards to break their pledge to the family,” says Reines.

The network differs, saying that it had “multiple sources” for that information. “Out of respect to the family, we have not quoted from or shown the journal,” says a CNN statement.

CNN never apprised anyone in the Stevens family of its plans to mention the journal on air, says Reines, though a CNN source insists that the network tried many times to reach the family after the Sept. 14 conference call, “to no avail.” In its statement, CNN gives this explanation for discussing the item on air:

The reason CNN ultimately reported Friday on the existence of the journal was because leaks to media organizations incorrectly suggested CNN had not quickly returned the journal, which we did.

Odd bit of reasoning: Did CNN run some material because someone had apparently peddled false rumors to other news outlets? The Wall Street Journal, says Reines, was poking around at this story, asking CNN if it was true that it had come into possession of the Stevens journal. (The Wall Street Journal declined to comment on the matter).

“[CNN’s] explanation for breaking their promise to the ambassador’s family is that someone was leaking on them, rather than any kind of responsibility to their own standards,” says Reines. “That is hardly a profile in courage.” Aside from this non-consideration, says Reines, CNN's editorial formulations didn’t change from the moment it spoke with the family to the time that it apprised its viewers of the journal. “The only thing that changed was their integrity,” says Reines.

Any fair accounting of this dispute must start with an endorsement of CNN’s industriousness. 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.

From there, the story gets more complicated. Journals enjoy an exalted cone of privacy among civilized people: Hands off.

That cone shatters, of course, when we’re talking about the writings of an ambassador who’s been killed in a high-profile attack in a volatile foreign country. Reflections and information in the journal may be of immediate public interest, an imperative that steamrolls any considerations about privacy. Not only was CNN right to read and copy the journal, but also it was obligated by its newsgathering mission to do so.

Judging from the record, it’s clear that the journal was instrumental in CNN’s Wednesday night story about Ambassador Stevens and the al-Qaeda angle. That piece was unflattering to the interests of the State Department, which, after all, is entrusted with protecting its personnel overseas. Is that why State is so upset over this matter? Not at all, says Reines: “The reaction that they are getting [from State] is in response to their lying to the family,” said Reines. As to the underlying story about how effectively State protected its people, Reines responds, “Questions about what happened are legitimate and are being asked and are being reviewed.”

Now, on to how CNN handled the family of the late ambassador. 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. Says Reines: “If they had Mirandized the family in that phone call . . . I would say I disagree and I probably would appeal, but at the end of the day I would disparage them to my colleagues and would say the media sucks and here’s another example, but I wouldn’t make an argument to them on the law.”

*Updated at 3:40 p.m. to note that the family had requested assistance from the State Department.

By  |  02:37 PM ET, 09/23/2012

Tags:  cnn, state department, libya, benghazi, christopher stevens, ambassador, andrews air force base, cnn state department, state department cnn, stevens famiiy

 
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