Media critic
CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

Last week, CNN announced that three top-level news officials had resigned after a mini-scandal over a story that it had published about an alleged investigation of an ally of President Trump. It was a quick chain of events: On Thursday, June 22, CNN published the story; on Friday, June 23, CNN retracted the story; on Monday, June 26, CNN announced the resignations.

So quick was the retraction, in fact, that CNN never detailed exactly what was wrong with the story. “We pulled it down not because we disproved it,” a CNN source told the Erik Wemple Blog. The real problem, said the source, related to internal CNN protocol for editing a sensitive story.

CNN is taking the opposite approach with this week’s mini-scandal, sticking with clumsy and creepy language in a story about a Reddit user who appears to have created an anti-CNN video tweeted by Trump over the holiday weekend. In the tweet below, Trump promoted a video showing him at a wrestling event pummeling a man; the video overlays the man’s face with the logo of CNN, for timely effect: Trump has savaged the network over and over.

The story of the origins of the Trump CNN meme has turned into a story about blackmail and privacy ethics in journalism. Learn what the "Trump Internet" is, and how it's using a CNN report as a rallying cry against fake news. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

A stir resulted, as critics rightly pointed out that the video appears to support, or at least fantasize about, physical attacks on reporters — a not-so-funny matter, considering what happened during May’s special congressional election in Montana. Supporters of the president, however, laughed off the tweet.

CNN set out to determine the digital provenance of the video showcased in Trump’s tweet, a task ideally suited to CNN “KFile” staffer Andrew Kaczynski, a former BuzzFeed staffer who has played a big role in developing the field of digitally based investigative journalism. Here’s the headline on Kaczynski’s Trump-video quest: “How CNN found the Reddit user behind the Trump wrestling GIF.” A Reddit user named “HanA[––]holeSolo” had taken credit for inspiring the Trump-tweeted video, and Kaczynski used details from “HanA[––]holeSolo” postings on Reddit to track him down on Facebook and contact him.

After Kaczynski contacted the Reddit user — but before interviewing him — “HanA[––]holeSolo” posted an extensive apology, since deleted, for his video work and for the racist messages that he’d previously left on Reddit.

First of all, I would like to apologize to the members of the reddit community for getting this site and this sub embroiled in a controversy that should never have happened. I would also like to apologize for the posts made that were racist, bigoted, and anti-semitic. I am in no way this kind of person, I love and accept people of all walks of life and have done so for my entire life. I am not the person that the media portrays me to be in real life, I was trolling and posting things to get a reaction from the subs on reddit and never meant any of the hateful things I said in those posts. I would never support any kind of violence or actions against others simply for what they believe in, their religion, or the lifestyle they choose to have. Nor would I carry out any violence against anyone based upon that or support anyone who did.

More:

The meme was created purely as satire, it was not meant to be a call to violence against CNN or any other news affiliation. I had no idea anyone would take it and put sound to it and then have it put up on the President’s Twitter feed. It was a prank, nothing more. What the President’s feed showed was not the original post that was posted here, but loaded up somewhere else and sound added to it then sent out on Twitter. I thought it was the original post that was made and that is why I took credit for it. I have the highest respect for the journalist community and they put their lives on the line every day with the jobs that they do in reporting the news.

CNN’s Kaczynski is explicit about the timeline surrounding the incident: That apology was issued after Kaczynski had contacted “Han” but before they had a discussion. “After posting his apology, ‘HanA**holeSolo’ called CNN’s KFile and confirmed his identity. In the interview, ‘HanA**holeSolo’ sounded nervous about his identity being revealed and asked to not be named out of fear for his personal safety and for the public embarrassment it would bring to him and his family,” wrote Kaczynski, who noted that “Han” had posted racist, anti-Semitic and other offensive remarks.

Now, on to CNN’s much-discussed stupidity in this instance. CNN granted “Han” anonymity in its treatment of the whole shebang. Whereas CNN usually grants such a privilege to sources “because of the sensitivity of the matter” or “because of the sensitive nature of the visit” or “because this person works with the White House,” this time, the news outlet mustered a far more baroque explanation for the move:

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.

CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

Rarely have three sentences provided so much fodder for media criticism. The long-winded explanation for anonymity establishes one heck of a precedent. Private doers of misdeeds can rejoice; if they can convince CNN that they are making appropriate amends and striving to become a role model in some way or another, then hey, the network will keep their names out of the news. Right?

In spring 2016, a group of Duke University students under the direction of Bill Adair, founder of PolitiFact, scoured 450 anonymous quotes and created a database that included a box to denote “reason given for anonymity.” Those reasons break down into several broad groupings: the sensitive-matter reason; the not-authorized-to-speak-on-the-record reason; the fear-of-reprisal reason; the hurt-professional-relationships reason; and the plan-hasn’t-yet-become-public reason. Not to mention the “asked to remain anonymous because of the stigma attached to bedbugs” reason.

Against the categories identified by the Duke students, the CNN explanation has the look of a seat-of-the-pants expedition — as if a reporter and an editor are building the company’s editorial policies over gchat on a holiday weekend. Why would a pledge to do better play any role whatsoever in a news outlet’s decision to grant anonymity? Is CNN going to assume parental duties for the Internet?

Though the anonymity-granting explanation is exotic and risible, it reflects a reality running across the mainstream media: We all too readily cave on the principle that people should be named in our news reporting. Here, the Erik Wemple Blog uses the first-person plural because we make this mistake all too often. And even as the media has continued granting sources and subjects their nameless footings, it has promulgated guidelines stressing the importance of explaining the reasons for the grant of anonymity. From that angle, CNN was complying with modern journo-standards.

But then it wrote that it had reserved the “right” to publish the Reddit fellow’s identity should his behavior “change.” “Blackmail,” screamed Twitter, and the blogosphere.

Julian Assange, too:

Threats have streamed into CNN and its staffers, some of them based on the idea that the Reddit user was a 15-year-old. CNN has corrected this mistaken impression. “CNN decided not to publish the name of the Reddit user out of concern for his safety. Any assertion that the network blackmailed or coerced him is false. The user, who is an adult male, not a 15-year-old boy, apologized and deleted his account before ever speaking with our reporter. CNN never made any deal, of any kind, with the user. In fact, CNN included its decision to withhold the user’s identity in an effort to be completely transparent that there was no deal.”

According to Kaczynski’s Twitter feed, “Han” called him to say, “I am in total agreement with your statement. I was not threatened in anyway.”

That’s an important point, although it bears mentioning that “Han” has every motivation not to rock the boat with CNN. In the meantime, a strange bit of text remains unmolested on the story: “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.” Does that line square with CNN’s editorial guidelines? Does the monitoring of a subject’s conduct fall outside the proper mission of CNN? And if so, why isn’t CNN enforcing standards this week as dutifully as it enforced them last week?

We asked the network about this matter on Wednesday night. The response: “It may be clumsily worded but it doesn’t violate any standards,” said a network rep.