Keeping CNN Honest

Published: June 28, 2017

By Jim Lichtman
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CNN’s Anderson Cooper has a semi-regular segment on his evening show called, Keeping Them Honest, where he reports about absurd or just plain wrong information. Now, the cable news channel is on the hook for posting on its website (not broadcasting) an inaccurate story of their own.

On Monday, three CNN reporters resigned after the network retracted a story about one of President Trump’s allies, Anthony Scaramucci.

As reported by The New York Times (June 26), “The article — linking Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge-fund manager and Trump confidant, to a Russian investment fund supposedly being investigated by the Senate — was removed from late last week after the network decided it could not fully stand by its reporting.”

Early Tuesday morning, President Trump tweeted:

“Wow, CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!”

Two hours later, he followed it up:

“So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC? What about the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost? They are all Fake News!”

So, what is the story and what happened to CNN’s journalistic standards?

“Thomas Frank, a reporter for CNN Investigates,” The Washington Post writes (June 26), “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 Krill Dmitriev.

“The CNN exclusive,” The Post says, “which hung from one unnamed source, didn’t take long to wither.”

“CNN’s president, Jeffrey A. Zucker,” The New York Times writes, “…helped lead an internal inquiry that found the story was published despite concerns expressed by CNN’s standards team, the people said. Thomas Frank, a veteran reporter who wrote the story; Lex Haris, executive editor of investigations; and Eric Lichtblau, an investigative editor and reporter hired from The New York Times in April, submitted resignations on Monday morning.”

Did CNN report anything about this to its readers?

“An internal investigation by CNN management,” CNN Media Reporter, Brian Stelter, wrote (June 26), “found that some standard editorial processes were not followed when the article was published, people briefed on the results of the investigation said.

“The story, which reported that Congress was investigating a ‘Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials,’ cited a single anonymous source.

“These types of stories are typically reviewed by several departments within CNN — including fact-checkers, journalism standards experts and lawyers — before publication.

“This breakdown in editorial workflow disturbed the CNN executives who learned about it.

“In a staff meeting Monday afternoon, investigative unit members were told that the retraction did not mean the facts of the story were necessarily wrong. Rather, it meant that ‘the story wasn’t solid enough to publish as-is,’ one of the people briefed on the investigation said.

“The reporting about the Russian investment fund and Trump officials was not relayed on CNN’s television channels, but it was published on the web and shared on social media.

“On Friday, one of the people named in the story, Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci, disputed Frank’s reporting and said, ‘I did nothing wrong.’

“Friday night, once it was determined that editorial processes were not followed, CNN deleted the story from Soon thereafter, the story was officially retracted and replaced with an editor’s note.

“The piece ‘did not meet CNN’s editorial standards and has been retracted,’ the note said. ‘Links to the story have been disabled.’

The editor’s note also included an apology to Scaramucci.

“ ‘CNN did the right thing. Classy move. Apology accepted,’ Scaramucci tweeted the next morning. ‘Everyone makes mistakes. Moving on.’ ”

What is unclear is exactly why “the story was published despite concerns expressed by CNN’s standards team.”

I will pass along the answer to that question when CNN releases more details behind their investigation.

While the media regularly holds politicians’ feet to the fire for inaccuracies and scandals, it is important to hold those who do such reporting to be held to similar standards.

“The powers of the press,” ethicist Michael Josephson writes, “should be treated as a public trust. Journalists must inspire credibility – faith and confidence in the honesty, accuracy and fairness of the information they convey.”

Regarding responsibility, Josephson says, “The powers of the press should be used responsibly to advance public interest without causing unjustified harm. Journalists should accept moral responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of actions and inactions, including the example set for others, and when in error, they should make full, fair, prominent and prompt corrections.”

While the Scaramucci story was not part of a CNN broadcast, the network demonstrated a commitment to Josephson’s standards by first pulling the plug on the story and links on its website; they apologized to Scaramucci, and made “a full, fair, prominent and prompt” correction regarding the story.

I had my own moment of accountability in September 2015, when a California reader questioned a story I had written about a mother involved in a protest in Sacramento regarding the state’s new vaccination law, (It’s the Law – Rebuttal). It’s worth revisiting. It’s also another reminder to me to be as thorough and diligent as possible.

After all… It’s Ethics, Stupid!


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