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In defense of CNN
The most trusted name in news is getting pilloried for publishing details from the late Ambassador Stevens' journal. Critics ought to leave CNN alone
Edward Morrissey
Edward Morrissey
O

n Monday, The Week asked a rather strange question in response to a disclosure from CNN regarding its reporting on the sacking of our consulate in Benghazi and the assassination of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The network, for which I occasionally write essays for no compensation, had reported for several days on the Stevens murder and the attack on Benghazi while crediting the information to an unnamed source familiar with Stevens' thinking on security before the attack. On Friday, however, Anderson Cooper finally revealed that the information came from a journal written by Stevens that one of CNN's producers found three days after the attack.

Perhaps a question could be asked over whether CNN should have specified its source material more honestly. The ambiguous sourcing left an impression that they were talking with at least one other person rather than dealing with documentary evidence. CNN explained that they held off on specifically identifying their sourcing until they could deliver the journal — just seven pages, apparently written recently — to Stevens' family, but the reporting could have credited documents rather than a "source" to make it more clear to viewers and readers.

However, the State Department took CNN to task for reporting it at all, calling CNN's use of the journal "disgusting." Mark Lecesse at the Boston Globe agreed with the government, writing that the "editors and producers at CNN failed to live up to a universal ethical principle, respect for families of the dead." Lecesse stresses the fact that this journal was a private diary, not a diplomatic cable, and so should have been considered entirely out of bounds. Both Lecesse and the State Department accuse CNN of breaking a "pledge" to Stevens' family to keep quiet about the contents of the journal, which CNN disputes in part by claiming that the pledge was to avoid using direct quotes or images of the document itself.

The real question isn't whether CNN should have used Stevens' journal to inform its reporting. It's why most of the rest of the national media seems to have lost interest in the story.

On the face of it, this is an odd attack for one media outlet to make on another. There is little dispute as to the newsworthiness of the journal itself, which outlined the growing fear Ambassador Stevens had over his personal security just before getting killed in what now looks like a terrorist attack on an American diplomatic installation. The information taken from the journal was hardly a private matter — it revealed Stevens' thinking about official matters and the extent to which he worried that the U.S. was vulnerable. CNN didn't use the journal to report on Stevens' personal life, which would have been an egregious violation, but instead used it to provide a better context for the attack that took Stevens' life.

Are we getting answers to those questions from State, which pronounced CNN's reporting "disgusting"?  Not now we're not. Three days after the attack, State stopped answering questions about the sacking of the consulate, referring reporters to the Justice Department after declaring the consulate a crime scene under the jurisdiction of the FBI. Ironically, this is about the same time CNN claims its producer found Stevens' journal in the "largely unsecured" ruins of the consulate. On Monday morning, CBS reported that the FBI hadn't yet arrived in Benghazi, 10 days after State refused to provide any more answers on this diplomatic and intelligence debacle.

The real question isn't whether CNN should have used Stevens' journal to inform its reporting. It's why most of the rest of the national media seems to have lost interest in the story. Two days after State clammed up, the Obama administration sent U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to five different Sunday talk shows to push the official line at the time on the Benghazi attack, which is that it was a spontaneous protest that "spun out of control" and resulted in a violent riot. At that time and since, the Libyan government forcefully rejected that conclusion, insisting that the attack had been premeditated and conducted by one or more terrorist networks operating in eastern Libya. By week's end, the White House was forced to change its story, admitting that it had been a terrorist attack. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both insisted that they would find those responsible for the murder of Stevens and three other Americans, more than a week after the anniversary of 9/11 when the terrorist attack occurred.

One might think that those same Sunday talk shows would want to revisit Ambassador Rice's categorical denials from a week earlier — but one would be sorely disappointed. Only CNN's State of the Union show included any guests with a foreign-policy portfolio, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. Fox News' Chris Wallace grilled Obama adviser Robert Gibbs on Libya and foreign policy. The rest of the talk shows featured nothing but horse-race analysis and commentators on domestic policy. Amazingly, less than two weeks after a successful terrorist attack that claimed the life of an American ambassador, a week after another ambassador claimed that it was just a spontaneous protest gone bad, and less than a week after the U.S. government had to reverse its initial stance on whether it was a terrorist attack at all, only CNN and Fox News thought to cover foreign policy on their Sunday schedules.

There is room for criticism over CNN's disclosure on its sourcing during the week after its producer found Stevens' journal. However, it's more than odd that journalists want to debate the journal while most media outlets ignore the White House's shifting stories and the attack itself. The impression left by the big media shrug is that they lost interest when the facts on the ground — literally, in this case — began to paint the Obama administration as incompetent and unprepared, and that the real outrage from the professional media was that CNN found the background information that made that conclusion more clear.

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