It’s been a rough couple of weeks, to say the least, for CNN.
Since June 26, the network has accepted resignations from three journalists over a story it had to retract regarding a Trump associate’s alleged ties to Russia, been the subject of a series of hidden-camera hit pieces by controversial conservative activist James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas exposing CNN employees talking candidly and cynically about the network’s Trump-Russia coverage and the quest for ratings, and, most recently, gotten itself into an absurd predicament over allegations that it “blackmailed” an anonymous internet user over his making an animation later retweeted by the president. For CNN, it’s been “arguably its toughest public relations stretch in its 37-year history,” as an opinion contributor for The Hill put it.
Even in the wake of the original story that led to the resignations of three members of CNN’s investigative unit (a newer and separate investigative unit from the one I coincidentally worked for in the fall of 2014, assisting with midterm election coverage and various other stories) conservative media personalities such as Sean Hannity were calling for Jeff Zucker, CNN’s president, to be fired. Yet as CNN’s woes seem to snowball, conservatives have not found themselves alone in criticizing the network.
The latest controversy revolves around a .gif animation of a clip from an old professional “wrestling” match where President Trump beats up Word Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon, with a CNN logo edited in over McMahon’s face. Following the first round of CNN controversies last week, Trump — in his characteristically unprecedented-for-a-president (unpresidented?) fashion — tweeted a modified version of this animation, prompting its alleged anonymous creator to first take credit and then, after being contacted by CNN, to apologize for the .gif. CNN then published an article about tracking down the anonymous animator (“HanAssholeSolo”) – who reportedly also made various racist and otherwise insensitive posts – which stoked yet more outrage against the network due to the story’s wording.
“CNN is not publishing ‘HanA**holeSolo’s’ name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same,” the article by CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski stated. “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”
That last sentence — apparently added at the suggestion of a network executive — prompted commentators ranging from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to accuse CNN of blackmail or similar crimes. As Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept (a national security reporter but also a former attorney) noted, however, the day after the controversy erupted:
The claim that CNN “blackmailed” the user into apologizing — expressed by a Twitter hashtag, #CNNBlackmail, that still sits at the top of trending topics on the site — seems dubious at best, since there is no evidence the user spoke to CNN before posting his apology (though CNN itself says it contacted the user the day before he posted his apology, which presumably means he knew CNN had found out his name when he posted it).
But the invalidity of those particular accusations does not exonerate CNN. There is something self-evidently creepy, bullying, and heavy-handed about a large news organization publicly announcing that it will expose someone’s identity if he ever again publishes content on the internet that the network deems inappropriate or objectionable. Whether it was CNN’s intent or not, the article makes it appear as if CNN will be monitoring this citizen’s online writing, and will punish him with exposure if he writes something the network dislikes.
Assange went further, writing on Twitter that CNN “committed a crime” and “a federal felony violation” in its handling of the wrestling .gif article. “When Trump goes low CNN goes lower: threatens to dox artist behind ‘CNN head’ video if he makes fun of them again,” Assange wrote. While others are saying CNN’s article falls short of the legal definition of blackmail, no one seems to be arguing that the network’s latest fumble has done anything but dig it into a deeper hole when it comes to Trump-Russia coverage and credibility in general.
But Greenwald, who addressed the CNN public relations tailspin even as it first started with the resignations of the three reporters last week, has also pointed out that “CNN is hardly alone when it comes to embarrassing retractions regarding Russia” in recent weeks and months.
“What is most notable about these episodes is that they all go in the same direction: hyping and exaggerating the threat posed by the Kremlin,” Greenwald wrote. “All media outlets will make mistakes; that is to be expected. But when all of the ‘mistakes’ are devoted to the same rhetorical theme, and when they all end up advancing the same narrative goal, it seems clear that they are not the byproduct of mere garden-variety journalistic mistakes.”
There may be something to the idea that CNN’s heavy focus on Russia is being directed from the top down. The three resignations over last week’s story, for example, were apparently prompted by Zucker’s fears of a massive lawsuit, at least according to the New York Post, and that is certainly the impression given by the hidden-camera video published by Project Veritas (which in the past, it may be noted however, has received funding from the Trump Foundation and criticism for deceptive editing) of CNN medical unit producer John Bonifield.
“Just to give you some context, President Trump pulled out of the climate accords and for a day and a half we covered the climate accords,” Bonifield says in the video. “And the CEO of CNN [Zucker] said in our internal meeting, he said good job everybody covering the climate accords, but we’re done with that, let’s get back to Russia.”
Time Warner, parent company of CNN, is in the process of merging with AT&T – a deal that could be completed sooner than expected, within the next two months, according to a new report. Zucker’s post-merger future with the company was already reportedly in question, but it was reported Thursday based on an anonymous source that “Trump doesn’t want the merger to be approved unless CNN President Jeff Zucker is fired.” (Although “analysts say there is little to stop the deal from moving forward,” according to the New York Times).
As the #CNNblackmail controversy unfolded, Zucker reportedly said Wednesday (apparently without irony or directly addressing the blackmail accusations) that Trump was “trying to bully” CNN “and we’re not going to let him intimidate us.” He added that, “you can’t lose your confidence and let that change the way you conduct yourselves,” and that Trump was targeting CNN because “he knows our viewers can be swayed because they’re not watching Fox or MSNBC” which are known for more overtly partisan coverage. This isn’t Zucker’s first criticism of Trump. In January, in fact, he appeared to issue a veiled threat to the then-president-elect. “The perception of Donald Trump in capitals around the world is shaped, in many ways, by CNN,” he said. “Continuing to have an adversarial relationship with that network is a mistake.”
Yet despite Trump and Zucker’s public differences, the two New York City businessmen may have more in common than meets the eye. The main thing they’re fighting over, after all – Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia – is looking like “mostly bullshit right now” to quote CNN producer Bonifield. Their rivalry – if as serious as portrayed in the media, at least – is a deeply personal one. Over a decade ago, it was none other than Zucker who gave an enormous boost to Trump’s media presence when, as an NBC executive, he green-lighted Trump’s show “The Apprentice.”
While tensions certainly seem to be running high, given the amount of dubious spin and posturing involved, it is still far from clear what end results will come from Trump’s feud with CNN. In other words, it’s business as usual in the murky world of media and politics.