CNN Tailspin: Network Bungles Response to Blackmail Firestorm

Cable outlet stumbles from crisis to crisis, slammed by journalism ethics experts for doxing threat

by Jim Stinson | Updated 06 Jul 2017 at 6:28 AM

CNN struggled to navigate the latest in a series of controversies on Wednesday, issuing contradicting statements and taking fire from media commentators and journalism experts.

It probably wasn’t the Wednesday that CNN executives imagined. They had likely planned to score points by linking President Donald Trump, through a video he tweeted out last week, to the apparent racist on Reddit who created it.

By late Wednesday afternoon, even CNN's assertion that it knew the identity of the likely video creator was uncertain thanks to fresh questions raised by Buzzfeed about the video Trump used.

The trouble started when CNN's "KFile" investigative unit announced that it had tracked down the creator of a GIF that mocked CNN, which Trump shared on social media last week. CNN posted the breathlessly reported story, written by former Buzzfeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski, late Tuesday night.

Within minutes, the story generated loads of outrage and sparked a debate about ethics in journalism.

The GIF showed Trump body-slamming a man with CNN's logo superimposed over his face. In reality, the man was businessman Vince McMahon, owner of WWE, and the staged event happened in 2007.

But the president's July 2 use of the video on his Twitter feed infuriated CNN and a crowd of its media allies. CNN and some other journalists claimed the video encouraged violence against journalists. However, CNN appeared the aggressor in its Tuesday story, bullying the GIF creator into deleting his Reddit account and apologizing.

"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," wrote Kaczynski. "CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change."

That last line in Kaczynski's story caused him and his network the most trouble. It appeared as if CNN was dangling the prospect of revealing the man's identity over him by threatening to expose the Reddit user at a later date if he offended CNN on social media ever again.

"The optics look horrible," said Joe Concha, a media reporter and columnist for The Hill, speaking to LifeZette on Wednesday morning. "I'm just shocked they wrote that in the story."

Indira Lakshmanan, who holds the Poynter Institute's Newmark Chair in Journalism Ethics, said CNN was right to investigate who created the GIF used by Trump. But she told LifeZette she was puzzled by the use of the "reserve the right" line.

"That, I've never seen before," said Lakshmanan. "I don't understand the reason for including that sentence."

Lakshmanan said the issue should create debate about how and when to use anonymous sources, and how readers will react to the usage.

Others noted CNN had violated its own principles.

"It's bizarre that CNN, which loves using anonymous sources against Trump, would boast on the Internet that 'CNN reserves the right' to publish someone's identity, presumably their name and address," said Tim Graham, research director of the Media Research Center. "Anonymity is only granted if it helps their agenda. Some principle."

Kaczynski was accused of threatening to "dox" the Reddit user. Doxing is the publishing of personal and identifying information about an individual on the internet, often in malicious efforts to strip the person's anonymity. Andrew Seaman, a blogger for the Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee, said CNN's decision to grant anonymity was not its greatest problem.

Seaman wrote that conditional nature of the anonymity raised a thorny question.

"Journalists should support the open and civil exchange of views, but their role is debatable when they try to police good conduct on other platforms," he wrote.

On Twitter, the fallout was more harsh and unforgiving.

"What CNN is threatening here is total life destruction," wrote Bethany Mandel, a contributor to The Federalist web magazine. "They would raze this guy's life. Over a GIF he made that the POTUS tweeted."

CNN's public relations office did not respond to multiple inquiries from LifeZette.

However, CNN distributed statements to several mainstream outlets early Wednesday afternoon. And those statements contradicted its own story's quote.

"CNN decided not to publish the name of the Reddit user out of concern for his safety," a CNN spokesman told The Hill.

But while Kaczynski wrote that CNN was not publishing the user's name because he is a private citizen, he added another justification for withholding his identity: "because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again." (go to page 2 to continue reading)

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