In 2017, CNN took a step that to this day stands out for its bizarre circumstances: It retracted a story alleging that the Senate Intelligence Committee was investigating a Russian investment fund “whose chief executive met with a member of President Donald Trump’s transition team four days before Trump’s inauguration.”

A backlash erupted, with other sites producing refutations of key details. The network’s retraction was remarkable for what it omitted: “That story did not meet CNN’s editorial standards and has been retracted. Links to the story have been disabled,” read an editor’s note, in part. Not included was any admission that the story’s claims were faulty — just that internal processes had been violated. “We pulled it down not because we disproved it,” a CNN source told the Erik Wemple Blog at the time.

Compare that episode to a series of recent events. Monday’s release of the report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz brought some dim news for CNN. The report focused in part on the procedures followed by FBI agents in writing applications for warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — specifically, those targeted at former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. It included this note on surveillance: “FBI and NSD officials told us that the Crossfire Hurricane team ultimately did not seek FISA surveillance of [George] Papadopoulos, and we are aware of no information indicating that the team requested or seriously considered FISA surveillance of [Paul] Manafort or [Michael] Flynn.”

That conclusion spelled trouble for CNN. In September 2017, CNN reporters Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz and Pamela Brown produced an exclusive alleging that “U.S. investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election” under FISA. Manafort had served for a time as Trump’s campaign chairman and the story provided grist for folks on Fox News eager to play up charges that the feds were out to get the Trump campaign.

Now let’s compare reporting: The CNN story was based on “sources,” while the refutation from the Horowitz report was based on “over 170 interviews involving more than 100 witnesses,” as well as “more than one million documents that were in the Department’s and FBI’ s possession.” More: “Our review included the examination of highly classified information. We were given broad access to relevant materials by the Department and the FBI, including emails, text messages, and instant messages from both the FBI’s Top Secret SCINet and Secret FBINet systems, as well as access to the FBI’s classified Delta database, which FBI agents use to record their interactions with, and information received from, [confidential human sources].”

In light of that disparity and CNN’s quick-twitch retraction in 2017, surely the network retracted the Manafort piece? No, it capped the story with this “editor’s note”:

On December 9, 2019, the Justice Department Inspector General released a report regarding the opening of the investigation on Russian election interference and Donald Trump’s campaign. In the report, the IG contradicts what CNN was told in 2017, noting that the FBI team overseeing the investigation did not seek FISA surveillance of Paul Manafort: “We were also told that the team also did not seek FISA surveillance of Manafort … and we are aware of no information indicating that the Crossfire Hurricane team requested or seriously considered FISA surveillance of Manafort."

That’s a punt, and it’s an embarrassment to journalism.

“Editor’s notes” are fast becoming the weaselly refuge of news outlets whose work is under fire. Too often,“editor’s note” is a euphemistic stand-in for “correction” or “retraction” or “apology.” Whichever CNN editor wrote this particular “editor’s note” betrayed common editorial principles. To merely state that the original story was contradicted by the IG report is to abdicate the role of a news organization — to ferret out the truth — and drop this matter into the laps of readers. (The Erik Wemple Blog has asked CNN about the editor’s note. We will update this post if we receive a response.)

When a CNN exclusive of this scale gets refuted, the response generally features endless coverage by right-wing media outlets, plus bottomless Twitter criticism. In this case, there’s been a muted backlash, with Fox News’s Joseph A. Wulfsohn and the Washington Free Beacon’s Alex Griswold shedding much-needed light on the matter.

A mightier uproar likely would have resulted if CNN’s story had attacked a common Trump talking point. Instead, it supported the president’s claims that the federal government had spied on his campaign. Keep this case in mind the next time someone says that errors in the mainstream media go only against Trump.

With his barrage of complaints against the media, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is threatening to overturn the governing culture of a landmark Supreme Court case. (The Washington Post)

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