CNN is getting some defenders in its battle with the State Department over its handling of the journal of the murdered ambassador to Libya, and the State Department is clearly getting agitated about increasing questions surrounding its handling of the situation, as a top spokesman for Hillary Clinton told a reporter to "f--k off."
CNN came under fire for reporting from Christopher Stevens' journal before returning it to his family. The network, which only revealed the existence of the journal to its viewers days after finding it, insisted it was only doing its job, and reporting that Stevens had feared an Al-Qaeda attack. In a statement to The Huffington Post and other outlets, the State Department called CNN "disgusting" for using the journal against the family's wishes, and said that CNN had done the equivalent of removing evidence from a crime scene.
On Sunday, CNN's own Howard Kurtz said the network had made the right call.
"I understand the raw feelings involved here, but my take is that CNN did the right thing in using the journal's contents for its reporting on a vital subject and, at the same time, trying to be sensitive to the feelings of a grieving family," the media critic said on his "Reliable Sources" show.
Kurtz might be expected to defend his employers, but some outside observers also said CNN had nothing to apologize for.
The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald said CNN was doing "basic journalism":
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.
The Washington Post's Erik Wemple agreed. "Reflections and information in the journal may be of immediate public interest, an imperative that steamrolls any considerations about privacy," he wrote. "Not only was CNN right to read and copy the journal, but also it was obligated by its newsgathering mission to do so."
Wemple said that CNN's mistake was to ask the family if it could report on the contents of the journal, rather than say that it had no choice but to do so.
CNN also took to its own airwaves to make its case. Managing editor Mark Whitaker appeared on Monday's "Starting Point" to explain the network perspective.
"When we talked directly to the family, their main concern was they wanted the physical journal back and they didn't want personal details from the journal revealed," he said. "We felt we had to respect that, and as a result we didn't immediately report on the existence of the journal or any of those details. However, we thought there was a legitimate national interest in pursuing this question of the possible terror threat."
"From an ethics of journalism perspective, the family says, 'we're not interested in having the journal put on television,'" host Soledad O'Brien pressed him.
"Soledad, this is an issue we wrestle with all the time in journalism," Whitaker replied. "How do you balance concerns for privacy against the public interest in learning information that is of vital national interest? And when you look at everything we did at every step, that is exactly the balance that we tried to strike."
BuzzFeed's Michael Hastings did some further reporting on the back-and-forth. He wrote on Sunday that the State Department had not even known about the existence of the journal until CNN's Arwa Damon found it, and speculated that Hillary Clinton and her team were trying to counteract a story that made them look bad: namely, that there was such an ample feeling of threat in the air before the attacks that Stevens wrote about it in his journal.
"There is a tragic human cost to what happened: the unbearable pain and grief the family and friends of the four Americans, compounded by intense media scrutiny and competing cover-your-ass agendas within the U.S. government," Hastings wrote. "To publish material against a grieving family's wishes is a tough call. But in this case, CNN behaved responsibly, and was clearly within any reasonable journalistic standards."
Hastings' reporting drew a scorching response from State Department spokesman Philippe Reines. BuzzFeed posted emails between the two which showed Reines getting angrier and angrier about Hastings' aggressive questioning. After Hastings asked him, "Why don't you give answers that aren't bullshit for a change?" Reines responded:
I now understand why the official investigation by the Department of the Defense as reported by The Army Times The Washington Post concluded beyond a doubt that you're an unmitigated asshole. How's that for a non-bullshit response? Now that we've gotten that out of our systems, have a good day. And by good day, I mean Fuck Off