June 25, 2024

Media Decoder Blog: Amid Criticism, CNN Defends Reporting on Ambassador’s Journal

Despite a third day of vociferous criticism from the State Department, CNN executives on Monday strongly defended the decision to base some of their reporting about Libya on the private diary of J. Christopher Stevens, the ambassador who was slain in an attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11.

CNN continued to maintain that it was pursuing a story of national interest in reports by Anderson Cooper on his prime-time program last week. Those reports used information about the security situation in Libya that was first gleaned from the diary, which was found by a CNN reporter in the wreckage of the consulate.

The network said it was accommodating the family’s wishes by not quoting specifically from the diary and instead basing its reporting on secondary sources to support the contention that the ambassador had been concerned about security threats.

But Philippe Reines, a State Department spokesman, accused CNN of violating an agreement it had made with the Stevens family not to use any information from the diary without the family’s permission. “They agreed it would not be used until they heard back from the family,” Mr. Reines said Monday, noting that he was on the phone call when the promise was made. “There was no ambiguity.”

The disagreement has embroiled the network and the State Department in a heated and somewhat murky debate involving journalistic ethics and internationally sensitive information, made all the more raw by the grief of the Stevens family and the ambassador’s colleagues in the diplomatic corps. Mr. Reines has sharply criticized CNN for several days, and on Saturday called its actions “disgusting” and “indefensible.”

CNN executives said that there was some ambiguity involved, chiefly in what was said between Richard T. Griffiths, a senior editorial director, and Tom Stevens, the ambassador’s brother, in the phone conversation to which Mr. Reines referred. That conversation took place on Sept. 14, the day the diary was discovered and the day a memorial service for Mr. Stevens was held in Washington.

“It was a murky call,” a senior CNN executive said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the network was limiting public response to comments made by Mark Whitaker, the managing editor of CNN Worldwide, on Monday morning.

Mr. Whitaker said on CNN’s morning program: “When we talked to the family, their main concern was they wanted the physical journal back and they didn’t want personal details from the journal revealed. We felt we had to respect that, and as a result, we didn’t report on the existence of the journals or any of those details.”

In a statement, CNN said, “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. 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.”

But as of Monday the physical copy of the diary was not in the possession of the family, according to Mr. Reines. The third party was a representative of the Italian delegation in Libya, whom the State Department asked to pick up the diary from Arwa Darmon, the CNN reporter who had found it.

But Mr. Reines said that continuing violence in Libya had prevented the Italian intermediary from reaching Tripoli, Libya, the only place where a flight out of the country can be arranged.

Mr. Reines said the Stevens family instead received a transcript of the contents of the diary from CNN. Network executives believed that was sufficient in fulfilling its obligation to make sure the family had seen the contents before it began using the material to inform their reporting.

Since that first exchange, the Stevens family has had no contact with the network. CNN executives said calls to the family had not been returned since then.

Efforts to reach Tom Stevens were not successful Monday, and Mr. Reines, who has been in contact with him, said Mr. Stevens was declining to comment on the family’s reaction to CNN’s decision.

Many journalists have come to CNN’s defense in general, saying that the network is a news organization and that what was in the diary was undoubtedly news.

“It doesn’t seem to me that CNN did anything in any way inappropriate,” said Geneva Overholser, director of the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. While acknowledging the wishes of the family were important, she said the use of information from the diary to pursue other interviews seemed to comport with the standard journalism technique of using material on background — that is, not to be quoted directly.

She added that if CNN could be faulted for anything it was not revealing initially that it had access to Mr. Stevens’s diary. “To me the key, as it is so often, is transparency in all things.”

But Mr. Reines disagreed. “Everyone is making this about the theological rights of reporters,” he said. “That’s not it. Whatever compelling journalistic standards CNN thought they had that let them report it, they had all those data points before they made a single call to the family.”

The reaction against CNN from the State Department has been so vituperative that it has led to questions of whether the department was seeking to drown out a central element of the reporting — that the consulate was poorly defended and unprepared for the attack, which came on the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Mr. Reines denied that.

The State Department has said it was adequately prepared. It has created a panel to investigate the attack, and F.B.I. investigators will also be involved in trying to determine what happened.

Mr. Reines described his harsh reaction to CNN’s decision in terms of sensitivity to the Stevens family at a time of tragedy. As an example of the raw nerve the attack has struck, Mr. Reines said he had refused to look at the transcript of the diary, which CNN sent to him to be forwarded to the family.

“It’s hard to explain,” he said, citing the intense emotions at the State Department surrounding the loss of Mr. Stevens. “So when the transcript comes in, there’s this taboo.”

He said he had not forwarded the transcript to anyone else at the department. But he conceded there was a chance that the contents might reveal some useful information about the attacks, intelligence that could help the effort to bring the perpetrators to justice, as President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have promised.

Article source: http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/24/cnn-managing-editor-defends-reporting-based-on-ambassadors-journal/?partner=rss&emc=rss

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