Expressing opinions, as it is done in these columns from time to time, requires no talent. It mostly requires flagrant impertinence mixed with some measure of reasonable understanding of issues at hand. Above all, it requires conceit that others actually may feel compelled to read them.
With that rider out of the way, I have been meaning to say a couple of things about CNN’s decision to use contents of the slain US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens’ private journal and produce a news report around it.
The State Department is so exercised at CNN’s decision to build a story out of the personal diary that Philippe Reines, senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called the network’s action “disgusting.” It is not everyday that the fountainhead of diplomatic tact, namely the State Department, calls a media outlet’s conduct disgusting. He also called CNN’s action “indefensible.
The basic facts are that CNN reportedly found in the charred and burnt remains of the US consulate’s compound at Benghazi the personal diary of Ambassador Stevens. Being a private journal it ought to have contained a lot of unfiltered and candid information and observations. News reports as well as direct comments by Reines suggest that CNN’s first reaction was to read the diary with the obvious intention to turn it into a news story.
In a statement Reines has been quoted as saying, “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?”
Watching CNN’s Anderson Cooper last Wednesday assert with extraordinary certainty that Stevens was worried about the security scenario in Benghazi as well that he was on Al Qaeda’s hit list, I did feel a bit odd about the sourcing. There was something to Cooper’s demeanor that suggested that he was privy to much more than what he was letting the viewers in on. My first reaction was “How is he so sure?” As it turned out he did have a direct access to Stevens’ own writings, a fact he did not mention on that particular broadcast. He was not obliged to mention his source.
It was only when the story about the journal started unraveling and the ambassador’s family reportedly expressed displeasure at its content being reported did CNN and Cooper issue an explanation. "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," Cooper said on Friday.
The basic controversy, dispute if you will, here is whether a news organization should have acted in the manner CNN did on the basis of what it found on a sovereign property in the aftermath of what was obviously a crime. It is also about whether the contents of a private journal are an acceptable source of news, particularly when they go to the very heart of now increasingly troublesome questions about the level and quality of diplomatic safety and security in Libya. It is equally about whether a news organization has the right to disseminate the contents of a personal diary of an official even before his family or the government has seen it. And finally, whether CNN was being less than straightforward in saying that it had informed Stevens’ family its intention to broadcast some of the materials.
I wish I could answer all of the above with a simple yes or no. In many ways this story is a classic test of the media’s rights and responsibilities. It is also one of those tests which the media can never fully pass or fail, no matter what course it chooses. My gut tells me that while CNN, like many others, may have gathered a fair amount of information on its own strength to raise questions about the ambassador’s safety, it owed its unusually confident tone almost entirely to the contents of the journal.
I do not say this in hindsight. Even while watching Cooper’s broadcast in question, as a professional journalist I was rather intrigued by his demeanor. At the risk of overstating it, I even felt that he was battling hard to contain his sense of certainty about what he was saying. One image that flashed through my mind then was that of a poker player holding all the aces and yet not letting that information ripple across his face.
This much is clear to me. No news organization would have let the contents go unreported. The question is mainly about when to report and how much to report. I don’t think that reporting it before Stevens’ family or the government had had the chance to review the journal was in and of itself violative of anything other than perhaps good form. What complicates the debate,however, is that, as Reines rightly points out, it was a crime scene and the diary did indeed constitute evidence.
On the other hand, the fact that the diary was found when there was no known forensic operation on does mitigate CNN’s conduct somewhat. A news organization must primarily act as a news organization first and foremost. In most circumstances it is not the job of a CNN correspondent, or for that matter any correspondent, to also double up as a custodian and protector of interests other than that of media freedom. That begs the question—did this fall under the “most circumstances” category?
A CNN story yesterday said that the organization “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. For CNN, the ambassador's writings served as tips about the situation in Libya, and in Benghazi in particular. CNN took the newsworthy tips and corroborated them with other sources.”
As you can see, what is happening here that I am indulging in circumlocution. That’s because the debate is not as sharply right or wrong, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical as many would like to believe. The only point I would make with any degree of finality is that at the very least CNN should acknowledge that its “first instinct”, as Reines points out, was to “remove from a crime scene the diary of a man killed along with three other Americans.” But even there CNN might argue with very thin justification that it was officially not a crime scene when it found the journal.
I think in the end this comes down to bad form versus good form more than anything else. But then whoever said that it is the media’s job to arbitrate between the two? Its job is to get the story out as long as it is in the larger public interest.