CNN in hot water with State Dept. and slain ambassador's family over diary swiped from embassy

A person working for CNN on the story of slain ambassador Chris Stevens swiped his diary from the "the largely unsecured" US consulate in Benghazi. The network then used the diary's contents to produce on-air reports, against the wishes of Stevens' family. The State Department says the network's actions were an “indefensible” invasion of privacy.

More on the ethics controversy: Newser, Politico, WaPo, AP, WSJ.

The diary contained only seven written pages in a hard-bound book, according to a CNN statement. Some who are debating whether the network's actions were appropriate ask where one draws the line in this sort of situation: if a news agency staffer swiped a hard drive, a laptop, or a little USB fob, instead of a paper diary, would the world react differently?

And in related news, the embassy attack is described by the New York Times as a "major blow" to CIA operations in the region.



  1. “Whose first instinct is to remove from a crime scene the diary of a man killed serving our country, read it, transcribe it, email it around your newsroom, and only when their curiosity is fully satisfied thinks to call the family or notify the authorities?”

    An investigative journalist, placing a higher priority on investigating than dickishness? Because if you’re not something of a dick, you’ll never find our much of anything.

    That said, ambivalent about this.

    1. Persistent and pervasive is not necessarily dickish.

      Having encountered a fair share of media, I can tell you that the dickish get the least information without resorting to unethical or illegal behaviour.

      Having sought out information from parties cloistered, I can tell you that the time to be perceived as dickish is after acquiring information legitimately and forwarding it without the provider’s express intent or spin to soften whatever consequence they may fear. 

      Theft is not investigating, it is theft and taints whatever info you acquire.

      Screwing with the bereaved almost never works out.

      You are ambivalent on this because…? If the volume was definitively identifiable as a personal diary or journal, and no one maintains it is not, then the violation is threefold. Theft, invasion of privacy, reneging on an agreement with the bereaved.

      1. Dickish was the wrong word. I was being a bit flip.

        I’m ambivalent, yes. Part of me thinks “what ghouls and theives!” another part of me says “Hrm. Did they get some good information out of that? Isn’t that a greater good?”

        Theft is not investigating, it is theft and taints whatever info you acquire.

        Of course. And if someone else steals information, and gives it to you, it is still theft. Which is also called a leak. And is commonly accepted as not being dickish, because…. you got a shabbes goy to do your work for you on the sabbath?

  2. So, an act of theft. Seriously, that is what this is and it is NOT even vague. The guy went into the US embassy and stole personal documents belonging to the murdered ambassador. He should be pleased to not be charged with espionage. Bring him up on theft charges and be done with it. Even if he only gets a slap on the wrist, the black eye given to CNN over this should discourage further behavior like this. I mean who does this guy think he works for, Rupert Murdoch?

  3. Some politician’s personal information that is probably relevant to the current election is stolen by the media and there’s an outrage. A murdered guy’s personal journal is stolen and it’s a debate if it SHOULD be an outrage? Really? This is a no brainer. 

    1. That’s how it looks to me too.  I’m also surprised by the lengths the State Dept. went to to frame CNN as a bad actor.  I think it would have been reasonable for State just to let this be a dispute between the family and CNN.  (Instead, they issued a statement full of hyperbole and hypocrisy that’s so one-sided it reads like it was written by a prosecuting attorney. State probably thinks of it as “staying ahead of the story”, but it just comes across as a load of garbage.)

  4. “And in related news, the embassy attack is described by the New York Times as a “major blow” to CIA operations in the region.”

    In that vein, I wonder if the actual state department is getting fed up with the fact that they have so many CIA spooks crawling around that everybody uses air quotes when they say “oh, you work for the ‘state department’, eh?” and attacks on embassies are an above-average way of bagging yourself some American intelligence types? 

  5. It wasn’t his personal diary in the sense that he talked about his personal life.

    It wasn’t “Dear diary, Becky is mad at me and that made me cry”

    It was about newsworthy items like “Al qaeda activity in Benghazi is high and I’m on a hit-list.”

    This is only controversial because it contradicts the official spin.

  6. I usually swap out a few terms in stories like this to clarify my thinking when it comes to ethics.
    So, instead of “A reporter swiped Stevens’s diary after he was killed…” I start with “A reporter swiped my mother’s diary after she was killed…” and take stock of how I think about that.
    I think it’s one thing to say “it’s basic journalism” when you’re talking about those who are still with us, and who can refute interpretations of the facts. I’m not convinced CNN did the right thing.

    1. Because there’s no better way to base policy than on one’s emotional response.

      So, instead of “an drone-strike killed a high-ranking member of al Qeuida…” I start with “a drone-strike killed a high-ranking member of  my family” and take stock of how I think about that.

      1. That’s a good point because the “high-ranking member of al-Qaida” is a member of someone’s family, and also the government seems quite willing to bomb some thousands of civilians in order to execute one “high-ranking member of al-Qaida”.

        1. A change-up, then.

          Instead of “An investment banker at Goldman-Sachs wiped out the retirement plans for hundreds of thousands today” I start with “My mother wiped out the retirement plans for hundreds of thousands today”

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