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CNN values a scoop more than simple human decency

Posted by Mark Leccese  September 24, 2012 08:09 AM

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Journalism ethics have been much discussed, taught, argued about and codified. I can understand why, but I’ve always believed the first word in the phrase “journalism ethics” matters far less than the second. If you want to be an ethical journalist, be an ethical human being.

The editors and producers at CNN failed to live up to a universal ethical principle, respect for families of the dead, when the network used information from the diary of the murdered Ambassador Christopher Stevens it had found in wreckage of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.

And they violated professional ethics at the same time by using information from a personal document in their broadcasts. The professional (and, by the way, legal) distinction here is simple: If CNN had found a draft of a diplomatic cable written by Ambassador Stevens to the State Department, that would be a government document. His diary — and even CNN called it a “diary” — is a private document.

The way CNN initially reported the information it found in Ambassador Stevens' private diary was misleading, to say the least. On Wednesday night’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” CNN reported information it said it got from “a source familiar with Ambassador Stevens’ thinking.” The phrase occurs at about 1:20 of this video.

By Friday night’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” the network, facing heated criticism, admitted the source was Stevens’ personal diary.

In the months before his death Ambassador Stevens talked about being worried about what he called the never-ending security threats in Benghazi. We also reported the ambassador specifically mentioned the rise in Islamic extremism, the growing Al-Qaida presence in Libya and said he was on an Al-Qaida hit list.

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.

Notice that CNN said it “notified” Stevens’ family but does not say it received the family’s permission to use information from the diary. The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that CNN had used that information even though it knew the family did not want anything from the diary made public.

CNN obtained a personal journal that belonged to the slain American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and broadcast reports based on its contents against the wishes of the Stevens family, according to relatives and State Department officials who were asked to intervene by the family.

The Associated Press reported CNN broke a promise to Stevens’ family that it would not use information from the dead ambassador’s diary.

CNN broke a pledge to the late ambassador’s family that it wouldn’t report on the diary, said State Department spokesman Philippe Reines, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In a blistering statement, Reines called CNN’s actions “indefensible.”

CNN made an effort to defend its actions in a statement issued Saturday.

CNN did not initially report on the existence of a journal out of respect for the family, but we felt there were issues raised in the journal which required full reporting, which we did. 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 US personnel. Perhaps the real question here is why is the State Department is now attacking the messenger.

As we said, we had multiple sources on Anderson Cooper's report Wednesday night.

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. Out of respect to the family, we have not quoted from or shown the journal.

Let’s go over the key points here.

  • The “public had a right to know” what was in the personal diary.
  • The United States government didn’t do enough to protect Ambassador Stevens. Government officials are “blaming” CNN to cover up their own failures.
  • CNN would not have reported it got information from a private diary, but other media sources were prepared to report that fact.
  • CNN should be praised for only reporting what the personal diary said and not airing direct quotes from the diary and images of the diary.

CNN’s statement is reprehensible, sullen and puerile. It demonstrates the producers and editors responsible for airing the contents of the dead ambassador’s diary placed rating over basic human decency.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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