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CNN Defends Coverage of Slain Libya Ambassador's Diary

360-Degree Hindsight
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

The network's global managing editor, Mark Whitaker, says reporting Christopher Stevens' worries about terrorist threats was of "national interest"; meanwhile, the State Department goes on the attack.

Mark Whitaker, executive vice president and managing editor for CNN Worldwide, is defending the network's reporting of contents from slain Libya Ambassador Christopher Stevens' journal.

Stevens was killed earlier this month by an angry mob that blasted rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. consulate in the Libyan capital of Benghazi. Three other American lives were also claimed in what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared a "terrorist attack."

Four days later, while inside the embassay, a CNN correspondent discovered a seven-page diary written by Stevens. Last Wednesday on Anderson Cooper 360, Anderson Cooper cited a source as saying "that in the months before his death, he talked about being worried about what he called the never-ending security threats specifically in Benghazi."

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On Friday, Cooper revealed that the journal was a partial source of information for CNN, and that the network had alerted the family to its existence.

"At their request, we returned that journal to them," he said on the air. "We reported what we found newsworthy in the ambassador’s writings. Our reporting followed up on what we found newsworthy, as I said, in the ambassador's writings."

CNN affirmed Cooper's remarks in a statement to Politico.com, maintaining that the channel "notified Stevens' family about the journal within hours after it was discovered and at the family's request provided it to them via a third party."

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Meanwhile, the State Department is none too pleased with the situation. Clinton's senior adviser who was the liaison between CNN and the Stevenses, Phillipe Reines, lashed out at CNN in a lengthy response on the political news site, accusing the network of invading Stevens' privacy and disregarding an agreement with his family not to report on the diary's contents until they had a chance to read it. An excerpt as follows:

What [CNN is] 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 Unites 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?
 
Here is CNN's response in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter:
 
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 US personnel. Perhaps the real question here is why is the State Department now attacking the messenger.
 
The network said it named the journal as a source on Friday "because leaks to media organizations incorrectly suggested CNN had not quickly returned the journal, which we did."
 
In a Monday morning appearance on CNN's Starting Point, Whitaker reiterated the network's stance, that Stevens' writings on being a target for al-Qaeda were of "national interest" (apparently superceding the interests of the late ambassador's loved ones).

"State department officials got involved in the middle of all of this but when we talked directly to the family, their main concern was that they wanted the physical journal back and that they didn't want personal details from the journal revealed," Whitaker told Soledad O'Brien. "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," he added. "And therefore we continued to report over the following days and got extra sources about the ambassador's thinking and other evidence of a security threat."