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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. CNN is on the defensive. It's being accused by the State Department of trampling on the wishes of the family of America's slain ambassador to Libya; after a CNN reporter found the ambassador's diary, and the network reported on details in it. As NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports, CNN says it made sensitive choices while keeping faith with the public's right to know.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Nearly two weeks ago, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was sacked; the visiting U.S. Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, killed. Three other Americans there also died.

MARK WHITAKER: It was three days after the attack and Arwa Damon, our reporter on the ground, went into the mission where the attack took place.

FOLKENFLIK: That's the top news executive for CNN Worldwide, Mark Whitaker. He said Damon came across Stevens' private journal as she walked through the abandoned consulate.

WHITAKER: By that point, it had been largely evacuated - at least, by U.S. personnel - and a number of reporters went around. The local owner of the house, who had let it out through the U.S. government, was there and accompanied her.

FOLKENFLIK: CNN found information in that journal that brought into question what was behind the attack. The White House initially cast blame on outrage, stoked by Muslim extremists, against a video insulting the Prophet Muhammad. But last Wednesday, CNN's Anderson Cooper reported suggestions that Stevens had premonitions of peril.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

ANDERSON COOPER: He talked about being worried about what he called the never-ending security threats, specifically in Benghazi; this source telling us that the ambassador specifically mentioned the rise in Islamic extremism, the growing al-Qaida presence in Libya, and said he was on an al-Qaida hit list.

FOLKENFLIK: Fury emanated from the State Department. Over the weekend, spokesman Philippe Reines attacked CNN for what he called indefensible behavior. He said the network had broken a promise to Stevens' survivors not to use material from the journal without explicit permission. Reines declined to be interviewed by NPR, but he spoke to the BBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF BBC BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: That's very strong language.

PHILLIPE REINES: Their behavior was, in fact, disgusting.

FOLKENFLIK: Reines told the BBC he did not blame a reporter for thumbing through the journal.

(SOUNDBITE OF BBC INTERVIEW)

REINES: I think at that point, there would have been a very thoughtful conversation internally, to talk about whether the news in it was so compelling and important that it had to be used.

FOLKENFLIK: In an email exchange that became public, Reines also viciously denigrated a reporter for BuzzFeed, who raised questions in defense of CNN. Last night, CNN's Anderson Cooper defended CNN's use of the journal, saying the network had confirmed the material it used with other sources and deferred to the family's wishes. Today, CNN's Mark Whitaker told NPR that his network's top standards executive had spoken with Stevens' brother.

WHITAKER: It was clear that the family didn't want us to report on the existence of the journal. And the family was also sensitive about the idea of reporting on personal information. And so going forward, we thought we had an obligation, not because - necessarily because we had made an explicit promise, but just out of decency; to try to not do those two things.

FOLKENFLIK: But Whitaker said the public needed to know about the circumstances preceding the attack.

WHITAKER: We thought we had an obligation to pursue the concerns that Stevens had about his safety, and about terror threats.

FOLKENFLIK: Former top State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Stevens' death was felt keenly among diplomats.

P.J. CROWLEY: For the State Department, we've lost our first sitting ambassador in more than 30 years. And there's a natural human reaction to this. They want to take care of their own; in this particular case, the Stevens family.

FOLKENFLIK: But Crowley, who served under current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, doesn't condemn CNN.

CROWLEY: From a media standpoint, obviously, they came into possession of information that is directly linked to a very significant story; and they reported it. This kind of tension exists all the time. You know, government is always wary of journalists who are reporting things that are sensitive. But that's the nature of this relationship.

FOLKENFLIK: The State Department is still investigating whether security at its consulate in Benghazi was adequate.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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