Let’s stipulate that this has gone on long enough – this war of words between President Trump and CNN over a story that has been entirely walked-back by its central source, Lanny Davis. Something is not right here, and everyone seems to get that – save CNN. And now they have doubled-down on a story that has been repudiated. What gives?
Anyone who went to day one of J-School knows that stories with anonymous sources are a sticky wicket. A reporter must double and triple source those statements to make sure they don’t backfire on them or else they will lose all credibility. In this instance, we have a situation where one public source has gone on the record and recanted, and the anonymous sources apparently have not.
The original article was written by three people: Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, Marshall Cohen (no relation to the president’s lawyer Michael), and Jim Sciutto. In that story “multiple sources” were cited. Essentially the article alleged that Donald Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting that was held by a Russian national and his son, Donald Jr., to gather opposition research on Hillary Clinton.
First, it is not a crime – not even a misdemeanor – to gather “dirt” on a political opponent. Whether candidate Trump “knew” about this event is essentially irrelevant. Or in the famed words of Mrs. Clinton, “What difference does it make?”
Well, actually none.
Second, once you’re on-the-record source has apologized and admitted that what he said was unverifiable and false, where does that leave you? The answer to that is simple for most journalists: in a big, fat heap of trouble. Again, if you’ve gotten to day two of J-school, you know this. But in the face of all this, CNN has decided to use this situation to become more resolute, evidence be damned:
Make no mistake, Mr. President, CNN does not lie. We report the news. And we report when people in power tell lies. CNN stands by our reporting and our reporters. There may be many fools in this story but @carlbernstein is not one of them.
— CNN Communications (@CNNPR) August 29, 2018
As he is wont to do, the president hit back – hard — and his son Don, Jr. chimed in as well to excoriate CNN. As this war of words on Twitter bounces all over the planet, the average citizen is left to wonder where the truth lies. Since CNN was the purveyor of the original story that was picked up by multiple news outlets, it means that they are in a very tight spot.
It’s not that CNN’s credibility is on the line. That has all but vanished with their abject hatred and continuous bashing of the president 24/7. It’s too late for them to be considered an objective entity regarding President Trump. But continuing to stand behind a story that your public source has recanted means that you need to either get your other sources to go public or be prepared to invite everyone to breakfast to chow down on that egg all over your face.
Code of Ethics
Journalists live by a code of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists has established four pillars of the trade that can and should be followed:
- Seek Truth and Report it
- Minimize Harm
- Act Independently
- Be Accountable and Transparent
One could make the case that CNN is repeatedly violating at least one of these principles at any given time. However, in this case, it is the fourth, “Be accountable and Transparent,” that is tripping them up. The SPJ code goes on to say, “Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.” This they have not done.
Put another way, you could say it is time – long past time – for CNN to put up or shut up. The public is no longer interested in Carl Bernstein hyping his Watergate bona fides. Americans are already suspect of CNN being a significant source of fake news. If the cable news network wants to play this game, they need to stop pussyfooting around with nasty-tweets and start acting like they understand the rules of play.