An undiplomatic dispute erupts between the State Department and CNN.
A man looks at documents at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. The graffiti reads, "no God but God," " God is great," and "Muhammad is the Prophet."
Foggy Bottom, the nickname for the State Department, could also describe the cloudy circumstances surrounding the public dispute between the department and CNN over the private journal of Chris Stevens, the slain U.S. ambassador to Libya. The spat hasn't just split the two internationally focused institutions; it has divided some media ethicists and editors as well.
First, the headline news version of the story: CNN reporter Arwa Damon, checking out the charred consulate, found Stevens' journal, which reportedly contained candid concerns about the security situation in Libya. CNN claims it alerted Stevens' family "within less than 24 hours" and arranged for the journal to be returned.
A phone conversation between a senior editorial director at CNN and Stevens' brother seemed to clarify usage rules. Or so both sides thought. Philippe Reines, a State Department spokesman, claimed that CNN agreed not to use any of the information without the family's permission.
A news organization has "two choices," Reines told me. "You explain your journalistic responsibility and obligation to report. Or say 'do we have your permission?' Don't go down the second road, and then five days later invoke journalistic responsibility and obligation."
CNN sees it differently. In a statement, it said, "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 U.S. personnel. Perhaps the real question here is why is the State Department now attacking the messenger. As we said, we had multiple sources on [Anderson Cooper's show 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. ... Out of respect to the family, we have not quoted or shown the journal."
Questions to journalistic observers drew decidedly different responses. For instance, what should Damon have done with the journal?
"The consulate was not secured; they didn't steal it," said Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. It's "a grey area of ethics," Kirtley continued. "Some say you never remove anything from a scene. But the role of a journalist is not to be an investigator for the government."
Bill Keller, former executive editor (and currently a columnist) for the New York Times agreed: "Count me in the 'fair game' camp. This isn't 'CSI,'" Keller said in an e-mail exchange.
"The reporter rescued the journal from a smoldering building," he said. "She apparently recognized that it was both a document of public interest and a personal effect to which the family was entitled. CNN treated the family's interest with respect. They used the newsworthy portions of the journal as leads to be followed. They did not sensationalize the story by using more personal material or by crowing about their discovery. It's not hard to imagine how other news outlets might have used this material with considerably less restraint."
But Fred Brown, vice chair of ethics at the Society for Professional Journalists, sees the matter differently than do Kirtley and Keller. "If you want to use what you found there you should probably ask permission," Brown said. "It's more than slightly unethical to copy the relevant passages and then turn it over."
Should CNN have even entered into an agreement with the family in the first place?
"This was a story that was newsworthy; it was valid, and so to me it was an issue of if CNN made this promise to the family and didn't keep that promise," Kirtley said. But, she added, "I don't think that was a promise that they should have made. I come squarely down on the side that CNN was justified in reporting what they reported."
Given the scope of the scoop, which was corroborated with multiple sources and which contradicted the Obama administration's narrative, the information was vital to the public interest. Initial reports -- from journalists and the State Department -- made it appear that Stevens was the victim of mobs enraged by an obscure anti-Islam film. Instead, the State Department is now acknowledging that this was a terrorist attack.
The tragic outcome is the same: four Americans murdered. But there is potentially a profound public-policy difference if the State Department failed to act upon Stevens' prescient concerns. And it would say a lot about the president, and the secretary of state, if the department wasn't accurate, or honest, from the beginning of the tragedy.
"The public-interest aspect of this outweighs the family's concern as long as what they are publishing is pertinent to those issues," Kirtley said.
But CNN also should have better clarified its promises, and should have been more immediately forthright with State, the Stevens family, and with viewers.
"The more transparency you can get into an ethically controversial decision, the better off you are as a news organization," Brown said.
The same could be said of the State Department, lest its response be read not just as defending the interests of the Stevens family, but also as a distraction from its failure to secure the consulate before -- and indeed, after -- the terrorist attack.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.