CNN's Brooke Baldwin Asks the Right Questions, Gets Right Balance on Benghazi Suspect

June 19th, 2014 10:59 AM

It is a rare occasion when I have reason not to criticize a news report, but to praise it copiously. But give credit where it’s due: In Tuesday’s early afternoon newscast on CNN, host Brooke Baldwin and her crew aired several superb segments relating to the arrest of alleged Benghazi-attack mastermind Ahmed Abu Khatalla.

Baldwin led her newscast with a few words of welcome, and then this: “For almost two years, the U.S. has been trying to bring to justice the raid on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But even though CNN could locate one of these suspects, the U.S. apparently could not. In fact, we talked to him, in public, inside a café – but finally today that suspect is in U.S custody.”

After explaining about the arrest and his current status as a prisoner, she continued: “Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, sat down with him in a café last year. He denied involvement in that attack in Benghazi, and claimed no official has ever asked him about the attack.” Then the report went to the video from May 2013, where Khatalla said he would be glad to talk to them as long as it was a “conversation” but not an “interrogation.”

For balance, they then went to a clip of President Obama explaining his thinking on the arrest, and then aired a live segment from a Pentagon briefing on the subject – and, when the spokesman said “if [Khattala is] hiding in plain sight, he’s not anymore,” CNN broke back to Baldwin, seamlessly, asking exactly the question most ordinarily curious people want to know:

"That’s really the question, isn’t it: If our own Arwa Damon sat down with this man at some point last year, what took the U.S. so long to grab him and arrest him?”

So far, so good. CNN did not shy away from what should have been obvious questions, but which some news organizations might have shied away from because the underlying context is a questioning of the Obama administration’s competence. Of course, it helped that CNN could boost its own reporting from 13 months ago, those bragging rights could outweigh any squeamishness about such a politically incorrect challenge to the powers that be.

Nonetheless, this first segment was balanced, also giving Obama and the Pentagon ample time. Then Baldwin brought on three guests – CNN reporter Evan Perez on the legal aspects of the case, “security analyst” Robert Baer, and the aforementioned Arwa Damon, who scored the famous interview 13 months ago with Khattala.

All three provided context that, while helping mitigate the impression of administration incompetence, provided fair and fascinating details that would interest, and be new to, almost any viewer.

First came Perez for a basic “tick tock” of the events, very informative. Then came Damon, who explained: “I think one has to look at the groundwork that existed in Libya at the time… our relationships with the Libyan government were tenuous at best.” Thirteen months ago, she said, there was “concern that his capture would further inflame anti-American sentiment, and further complicate an already complicated security situation… [This was a time when there was] al Qaeda graffiti being painted on the walls….

“Fast forward to what Benghazi looks like right now: still very lawless, still a very dangerous place but at the same time, interestingly, you have this big anti-Islamist movement that has been happening, part of it spearheaded by a renegade general who has made it his mission to go after these various different Islamist brigades … so the circumstances inside Libya right now make it much more conducive for this kind of operation to take place…”

Now this is informative stuff. Some of the reporting tends to make the Obamites look bad. Some of it explains, quite believably, why the 13 months of failure weren’t necessarily as much a sign of haplessness at they might have appeared. What matters isn’t whose ox is (or isn’t) gored, but just what the facts say. This is good reporting.

The segment ended with Baer explaining how the actual arrest – the operation to nab Khattala – likely took place, and why American forces or drones didn’t just kill the man. “We would like to know what happened [the night of the infamous raid on the American consulate],” Baer said. In so many words: We can’t interrogate the suspect if he’s dead.

Baldwin followed with a brilliantly conducted interview of Patricia Smith, mother of slain American diplomatic official Sean Smith – an interview covered at Newsbusters by Connor Williams.

After a break, Baldwin and CNN moved on to several other stories. But they weren’t finished with Benghazi. At the top of the next hour, they led again with the topic, with Baldwin again handling the reporting and questioning in solidly balanced fashion. Bringing Arwa Damon back on the air, Baldwin asked, again, what I think an incredulous public really wanted to know:

“Give me the backstory, how did you find him, how difficult was it to find Khattala to sit down in that café and pepper him with questions?”

Damon’s answered in deadpan fashion. (Here, I paraphrase): She checked some sources, found his phone number, called him up, asked for an interview. “It was about that simple,” Damon summed up. And, later: “He’s really not that difficult to find.”

All of which is to say that CNN, while taking due credit for its scoop, did not try to overstate its reporter’s guile or legwork or courage. It was all very matter-of-factly presented – just as good reporting should be. Kudos to CNN for a thorough, interesting, balanced, and tonally appropriate newscast.

NewsBusters contributor Quin Hillyer is a Contributing Editor for National Review. He has won significant mainstream awards for journalistic excellence at the local, state, regional, and national levels.