Democracy Dies in Darkness

Erik Wemple | Opinion

Three CNN employees resign over retracted story on Russia ties

By Erik Wemple

June 26, 2017 at 6:26 PM

Watch more!
The Fix's Callum Borchers explains why CNN retracted a story about a Trump campaign aide, leading to the resignation of three CNN employees. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Thomas Frank, a reporter for “CNN Investigates,” last Thursday appeared to have a compelling exclusive on the story of the year. The Senate Intelligence Committee, reported Frank, was investigating a Russian investment fund — the Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) — “whose chief executive met with a member of President Donald Trump’s transition team four days before Trump’s inauguration.”

That transition team official is Anthony Scaramucci, a Wall Streeter who was expected to take a prominent White House position but did not. Scaramucci met in January with RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev.

The CNN exclusive — which hung from one unnamed source — didn’t take long to wither. Breitbart News’s Matthew Boyle bombed the CNN piece as baseless. Sputnik News published a refutation, indicating that the fund was not a part of Russian state bank Vnesheconombank, as the CNN report had claimed. This detail mattered a great deal, considering that Vnesheconombank was listed in a set of sanctions issued by the U.S. government; RDIF itself, however, is subject to sanctions from the U.S. Treasury Department. According to the CNN report, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe into this matter was linked to the meeting between top Trump adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner and Vnesheconombank CEO Sergey Gorkov during the presidential transition.

Scaramucci himself chimed in:

CNN issued a retraction late on Friday:

An appreciative Scaramucci tweeted:

Now for the consequences. CNN announced on Monday afternoon that three network officials are leaving their jobs over the incident: Frank, the reporter on the story; Eric Lichtblau, a recent CNN addition from the New York Times who edited the piece; and Lex Haris, the executive editor of “CNN Investigates.” The moves follow an investigation carried out by CNN executives over the weekend, with the conclusion that longstanding network procedures for publishing stories weren’t properly followed. “There was a significant breakdown in process,” says a CNN source. “There were editorial checks and balances within the organization that weren’t met.”

The official CNN statement: “In the aftermath of the retraction of a story published on CNN.com, CNN has accepted the resignations of the employees involved in the story’s publication.”

Regarding the personnel changes, a CNN source said, “The individuals all stated that they accepted responsibility and wanted to resign.” A compelling wrinkle in the saga of the story springs from the careful language in the editor’s note: “That story did not meet CNN’s editorial standards and has been retracted. Links to the story have been disabled. CNN apologizes to Mr. Scaramucci,” it reads. CNN is not bailing on all the factual representations in the story, however. “We pulled it down not because we disproved it,” says a CNN source, adding that there was “enough concern” on some factual points that “given the breach in process, we decided to pull it down.”

The event is a cataclysm accentuated by the peculiar bind in which the 24-7 network has found itself. CNN tops President Trump’s list of objectionable news outlets, one that he famously claimed in a January transition press conference was “fake news,” even though the reporting he was referring to — about high-level intelligence briefings — was 100 percent correct. Trump fans everywhere have taken up the fight, hammering the network every time it equivocates or otherwise over-reports the Russia-Trump line of inquiry. In the regular White House briefings, press secretary Sean Spicer carries on a sneering and long-running feud with CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, perhaps the press corp’s most outspoken detractor of the White House’s no-camera and no-audio briefings.

Watch more!
White House press secretary Sean Spicer got into a heated exchange with reporters on May 30. Spicer said he and President Trump are "frustrated" with "patently false" news stories. (Reuters)

That context explains the speed and severity of CNN’s personnel moves over the Russia-Scaramucci story. An organization of nearly 4,000 news professionals; an organization that has spent huge sums recruiting ever-greater reportorial muscle; an organization that promises both sides a fair shake; an organization that values right-on-the-money exclusives — it just cannot abide getting shamed by Sputnik and Breitbart. A CNN source rejected the notion that the company does anything differently because of the pressure coming from the commander in chief and his supporters. “We don’t feel hemmed in by the administration or the words that they use at all,” says the source.

Nor is the Russia-Scaramucci story the only recent CNN black eye. In advance of former FBI director James Comey’s Senate testimony, CNN used four bylines — Gloria Borger, Eric Lichtblau, Jake Tapper and Brian Rokus — to report that Comey would contradict Trump’s claims that the fired FBI chief had told him that he wasn’t a target of an investigation. Instead, the opposite turned out to be the case: Comey confirmed those claims of Trump. The story piled poor editorial judgment on top of faulty reporting, in that there was little merit in predicting Comey’s testimony a day or two before he gave it. A CNN source insists that the Comey-prediction screwup was “not connected” to its handling of the Russia-Scaramucci episode. “That said, we have to play error-free ball,” says the source.

At a panel discussion Friday afternoon hosted by the Washington Press Club Foundation, CNN senior congressional reporter Manu Raju addressed these difficult journalistic times. “You just cannot screw up in this environment because they’ll use every small mistake to come after you and suggest that you have some nefarious motive in your reporting,” he said.

Trump signs an executive order for border security and immigration enforcement improvements at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool photo via Bloomberg News)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump, along with their wives and two others, attend dinner at Mar-a-Lago. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Trump hugs a supporter he invited onstage to speak during a Make America Great Again rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Fla. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Trump speaks during his first address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber at the Capitol. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and first lady Melania Trump welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the first family take part in an egg race during the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump displays an executive order reviewing previous National Monument designations made under the Antiquities Act, during a signing ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump speaks as he presents the Commander-in-Chiefs Trophy to Air Force Academys football team in the Rose Garden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump welcomes Abu Dhabis crown prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, outside the West Wing of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, center, holds a sword and sways with traditional dancers during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace in Riyadh. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Christian Jacobs, 6, center, hugs Trump during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Trump signs two bills at the White House: the American Law Enforcement Heroes Act of 2017 and Public Safety Officers Benefits Improvement Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump, center, greets Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), right, takes his seat during a meeting with House and Senate leadership in the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
After arriving in Cincinnati, Trump greets a family whose insurance premiums rose under the Affordable Care Act. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listen during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks on the White House South Lawn at a ceremony honoring Clemson Universitys NCAA champion football team. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump pumps his fist after signing the executive order on Cuba policy at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump greets visitors outside the White House after returning from Miami. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks during the technology roundtable. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump shakes hands with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump arrives onstage to speak at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Susan Walsh/AP)
George Mathew, right, chief executive of Kespry, shows Trump a drone during the event at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks with first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence and his wife, Karen, during the Congressional Picnic. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump greets Michael Verardo during the bill-signing event for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Verardo lost his leg in Afghanistan in 2010 when he served as a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, with Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin by his side, displays the written Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 after signing it at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Steven Mnuchin and Louise Linton, center, at their wedding with Melania Trump, Trump, Vice President Pence and second lady Karen Pence at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for LS)
From left: White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Vice President Pence, Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listen during a meeting with Modi. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hug while making their statements. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), left, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), speaks as he meets with Republican senators about health care at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with immigration crime victims in the Cabinet Room. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump holds a Chicago Cubs jersey as he meets with members of the 2016 World Series champions in the Oval Office. Cubs player Kris Bryant is holding a 45 sign. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Southern Ute Councilman Kevin R. Frost, center left, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, center right, speaks with Environment Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, left, during an energy roundtable with tribal, state and local leaders at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and first lady Melania Trump look on as South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife, Kim Jeong-suk, arrive at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, center, delivers remarks as Vice President Pence, left, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry listen during the Unleashing American Energy event at the Energy Department in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Astronaut Dave Wolf, left, pretends to grab a pen as Trump hands it to former astronaut Buzz Aldrin after signing the order to reestablish the National Space Council, a White House-based office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump shake hands during their joint statement in the Rose Garden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks from the Truman balcony of the White House as the first lady looks on. The president was hosting a picnic for military families for the Fourth of July holiday. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Trump talk during a meeting in the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski a day before the G-20 summit got underway. (Jens Schlueter/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump and Macron at an official welcoming ceremony in the courtyard of Les Invalides. (Matthieu Alexandre/AP)
From left: President Trump, first lady Melania Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, tour Napoleon Bonapartes tomb. (Pool/Reuters)
From left: First lady Melania Trump, President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron watch the traditional Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. (Michel Euler/AP)
Trump sports a cowboy hat during the Made in America product showcase. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President Trump sits in a firetruck while Vice President Pence stands below on the South Lawn of the White House. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President shows off a presidential proclamation for Made in America Day and Made in American Week during the Made in America product showcase on the South Lawn of the White House. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks at a luncheon with Republican leadership about health care in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: A look at President Trump’s first six months in office

Correction: This post initially omitted the fact that the Russian Direct Investment Fund is under Treasury Department sanctions.

Journalism mills presiding over acts of misconduct have a patented approach to juggling the public demand for punishment with their preference for keeping their beloved colleaguesthe suspension. That this case didn’t end with such a lousy and always unproductive resolution underscores the stakes for mainstream media outlets reporting on the Trump administration.

Critics will long cite this episode as evidence that CNN is precisely what Trump has called it — “fake news.” Yet the departure of three journalists immediately following a mangled story provides a counterpoint to this particular slander. Purveyors of fake news, after all, don’t take drastic personnel moves following a bogus story. They rejoice in it.


Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

You obviously love great journalism.

With special savings on our Basic Digital package, you’ll never miss a single story again.

Already a subscriber?

Secure & Encrypted