Today Poynter.org announced that Investigative Reporters and Editors has recognized CNN’s coverage of the Benghazi attack on September 11, 2012, with an IRE Award (see a segment of the report above). As you might recall, the network had been criticized for some of the methods used in its reporting, which included entering the bombed compound and removing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’ journal from the scene (you can read about it here). Stevens and three others died in the attack.
In its announcement, IRE said of CNN’s coverage: “CNN correspondent Arwa Damon and photojournalist Sarmad Qaseera arrived quickly in Benghazi to find valuable clues in the wide-open but looted and burned ruins of the consulate.” While appropriating the journal in the way that CNN’s correspondent did might itself have amounted to looting, Washington Post columnist Erik Wemple sided with CNN, writing that “Journals enjoy an exalted cone of privacy among civilized people: Hands off. That cone shatters, of course, when we’re talking about the writings of an ambassador who’s been killed in a high-profile attack in a volatile foreign country. Reflections and information in the journal may be of immediate public interest, an imperative that steamrolls any considerations about privacy. Not only was CNN right to read and copy the journal, but also it was obligated by its newsgathering mission to do so.” By taking this position, Wemple cast his argument as a free press vs. government issue, since the State Department had a vested interest in what might have been written in the journal that cast a negative light on the security of the consulate.
I don’t see it that way. I agree that the attack on the consulate was “of immediate public interest;” but did that trump privacy considerations, or at least handling Stevens’ family with more dignity? According to Wemple, “The family of the late ambassador had requested that CNN not issue any reports based on the journal — or even reference its existence — before the family consented.” And CNN had apparently agreed to abide by their wishes. But when CNN’s Anderson Cooper aired the report, it was ostensibly the journal that was referenced as his primary “source.” Said Cooper: “A source familiar with Ambassador Stevens’ thinking said in the months before his death, he talked about being worried about what he called the never-ending security threats, specifically in Benghazi. The source [is] telling us that the ambassador specifically mentioned the rise in Islamic extremism, the growing al-Qaeda presence in Libya, and said that he was on an al-Qaeda hit list.”
Wemple’s and CNN’s strident, damn-the-torpedoes approach toward news gathering is based on an overwhelming case of public interest, a case that “steamrolls any considerations about privacy.” If there were security problems at the consulate that went unaddressed and that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, the public certainly deserves to know about them, particularly if the State Department is either incapable of, or unwilling, to do so. On the other hand, Wemple and CNN should at the least admit that CNN was on thin moral ice in this case, particularly in how it obtained the journal and in how it seemed to have treated Stevens’ family. In the end, to me this was an ethical close call and it should have been noted as such. The fact that it wasn’t (by Wemple at least) seems almost as troubling as CNN’s actions themselves.
IRE, of course, has every right to recognize the reporting of whomever they want. But rewarding the ethically suspicious actions of CNN does nothing to further the cause of journalism ethics and to encourage reporters to exemplify the sort of moral character that truly is deserving of recognition.