Monday, September 24, 2012

Glenn Greenwald: State department attacks CNN for doing basic journalism - Obama officials hide behind Ambassador Stevens' family to delegitimize reporting that reflects poorly on them

State department attacks CNN for doing basic journalism: Obama officials hide behind Ambassador Stevens' family to delegitimize reporting that reflects poorly on them
by Glenn Greenwald
The Guardian

Three days after Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Benghazi, Libya, CNN found a seven-page handwritten journal he had written. That journal, found on the floor of what CNN called "the largely unsecured consulate compound where he was fatally wounded", contained obviously newsworthy information: specifically that "in the months leading up to his death, the late ambassador worried about what he called the security threats in Benghazi and a rise in Islamic extremism". CNN also reported that Stevens "mentioned his name was on an al Qaeda hit list".

After finding the journal, CNN personnel did the only thing which any minimally competent journalist would and should do: they read it, identified the parts that were in the public interest, confirmed their authenticity with independent sources, and then reported those facts to the world. They also notified Stevens' family of what they had found.

In response to this reporting, State Department spokesman Philippe Reines issued a blistering, unusually aggressive attack on the news network. Denouncing CNN's conduct as "disgusting", Reines invoked Stevens' family to insist that CNN had done something unconscionable:

"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 United 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?"

The answer to that question is: any journalist worthy of the name. CNN's first obligation is to disclose to the public information that is newsworthy, not conceal it. Had they not reported this information, that would have been an inexcusable breach of their obligation - then the word "disgusting" would have been appropriate. What they reported had nothing to do with Stevens' personal life and everything to do with his role as a government official; his family's "permission" was therefore irrelevant.

(At least a few Democratic Party loyalists have dutifully joined in the State Department's attack on CNN. One of Nancy Pelosi's daughters, Christine - yet another in the endless stream of televised pundits who is given a public platform due to a politically famous parent in a nation that claims to loathe aristocracy - went on Fox News this weekend and denounced CNN as "outrageous" and demanded that "they absolutely ought to be stopped", whatever that might mean.)

What is actually "disgusting" here is that the State Department is exploiting the grief of Chris Stevens' family in an attempt to suppress and delegitimize reporting that reflects quite poorly on them. As Michael Hastings documented yesterday, the State Department views the revelations from Stevens' journal as threatening to Hillary Clinton's reputation, the legacy of the war in Libya, and possibly Obama's political prospects in an election year:

"The blockbuster news contradicted the line the State Department and the administration had been pushing since the horrible tragedy took place almost two weeks ago: that there was no intelligence of a coming attack. In fact, the Ambassador himself was aware of a persistent high level threat against him.

"'Perhaps the real question here,' CNN responded to the State Department criticism, 'Is why is the State Department now attacking the messenger.'

"That is the real question, and State Department's bizarre criticism of CNN gives clues to the answer. Foggy Bottom is now in full-on damage control mode, with the primary goal of keeping Hillary Clinton's legacy in Libya - and in Washington - intact.

"The election-year focus on President Barack Obama meant that the White House had at first been catching most of the heat for the tragedy in Benghazi. It's certainly true the explanations from White House spokesman Jay Carney and UN Ambassador Susan Rice have strained common sense - mainly, the idea that the attack could be blamed solely on an anti-Islamic video, and that there was a protest outside the consulate at 10 p.m. (there reportedly wasn't,) among other misleading details. That initial story has crumbled . . .

"But in reality, the fiasco appears to be largely - if not entirely - a State Department botch. It was the State Department that failed to provide its ambassador adequate security; it was the State Department that fled Benghazi in the aftermath of the attack, apparently failing to clear or secure the scene, leaving Stevens' diary behind; and it was State that had taken the lead on the ground after the Libya intervention."

I'm not particularly impressed with the criticism that the Obama administration should have better secured the consulate. It is always easy retroactively to demand greater security when an attack occurs, and it is impossible to safeguard against all potential threats. Nonetheless, that is a criticism that is being widely voiced, rendering Stevens' journal clearly relevant and newsworthy. If a US ambassador is murdered, the fact that he spent months worrying about his security is obviously something the public should know.

To Read the Rest of the Commentary

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