It has been a difficult week for CNN, the New York Times and the Associated Press, with all three news organizations’ “Russiagate” coverage found to be flawed and based on false claims. The latter two organizations were forced to issue retractions for some of their coverage as a result. But CNN has apparently decided to further fan the flames of controversy instead of attempting to put them out.
In the latest debacle for CNN, a reporter has been caught blackmailing a private citizen over a meme he allegedly posted on Reddit that was later tweeted by President Donald Trump.
The meme, in the form of an animated GIF, shows edited footage of Trump physically attacking a person with the CNN logo superimposed over his head at a wrestling match.
The incident shown in the GIF took place in 2007, when Trump attacked World Wrestling Entertainment Chairman Vince McMahon during a scripted wrestling match.
Critics of Trump were quick to suggest that the video was a call to violence against journalists
However, no critical reaction compared to that of CNN itself. After condemning the president for having tweeted the meme, the news organization made it a point to hunt down the person originally responsible for its creation. CNN ultimately tracked the meme to a Reddit user with the username “HanA**holeSolo,” though the White House denied having obtained the meme from Reddit.
CNN rejected the White House’s claim, asserting that Reddit was, in fact, the origin of the meme, despite having only circumstantial evidence to support their claim. CNN’s Tom Foreman further argued that “If he [Trump] got it from that source [Reddit], a whole bunch of new questions about racism, bigotry, and violence come into play.”
This claim came after CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski dug through the Reddit user’s past posts and showed them to analysts with the Anti-Defamation League, who described them as being anti-Semitic and racist. Thus, per CNN’s logic, the wrestling meme – and the president’s tweet including it – is therefore also anti-semitic and racist. However, even the ADL did not agree with CNN’s assessment that the Reddit user created the original clip, just a version of it.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 2, 2017
Kaczynski continued to dig, eventually uncovering the user’s real name and identity and attempting to contact him via Facebook, phone and email. The user did not respond to Kaczynski’s contact attempts.
Following CNN’s coverage of his Reddit account and Kaczynski’s attempts to reach him, the Reddit user issued an apology on a pro-Trump subreddit, stating that “The meme was created purely as satire, it was not meant to be a call to violence against CNN or any other news affiliation.”
In addition, the user added that “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 […]”
After the apology was issued, Kaczynski spoke with the Reddit user by phone. According to the article Kaczynski later published, the Reddit user “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.”
The CNN article then stated: “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 [emphasis added].”
In other words, were the Reddit user to “repeat” such “ugly behavior” (i.e. posting memes) on social media again, CNN could expose his identity to the world – a prospect that CNN admits made the Reddit user nervous and uncomfortable.
CNN’s critics fire back
Among the first to point out CNN’s blatant blackmail of a private citizen was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who tweeted that CNN’s threat to reveal the Reddit user’s identity were he to poke fun at them again was a threat to free speech and violated criminal statutes.
— Defend Assange Campaign (@DefendAssange) July 5, 2017
— Defend Assange Campaign (@DefendAssange) July 5, 2017
Numerous Trump supporters, as well as people critical of the mainstream media and CNN in particular, were quick to respond on Twitter as well.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 5, 2017
When one of the world's top 6 media companies blackmails a private citizen over a meme, journalism has gone out the window. #CNNBlackmail
— Sarah Abdallah (@sahouraxo) July 5, 2017
The backlash was fierce enough to push CNN to claim that they never attempted to blackmail the Reddit user, with Kaczynski tweeting that his article had been misinterpreted, stating that “it was intended only to mean we made no agreement w/ the man about his identity.”
CNN then issued an official statement on the matter, stating that the decision to not publish the name of the Reddit user was made “out of concern for his safety,” adding that “any assertion that the network blackmailed or coerced him is false.” It also stated that “CNN included its decision to withhold the user’s identity in an effort to be completely transparent that there was no deal” made between them and the user.
However, Twitter users were unconvinced, given the original wording of the article, which remains unchanged.
If you believe publishing his name jeopardizes his safety, why would you reserve the right to do so later, if his actions displease you?
— Lasse Rimmer (@lasserimmer) July 5, 2017
In addition, tweets from a CNN producer only added to the blackmail accusations. Donie O’Sullivan, the producer for Kaczynski’s program “KFILE,” tweeted in defense of Kaczynski that “horrible, racist keyboard warriors change tune once identified.” He then described how he had discovered the identity of someone who had recently “trolled” him on Twitter, who – once identified – apologized and asked him “not to tie all the anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist posts” associated with his account.
… and asked me not to tie all the anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist posts he had shared back to him.
— Donie O'Sullivan (@donie) July 5, 2017
This latest debacle on the part of CNN is incredibly ironic, given that they painted themselves as the victims of the Trump wrestling meme, only to blackmail a private citizen they believe to have been its original source.
Mon: "GIFs make people want to hurt us!"
Tues: "Apologize or we'll hurt you."#CNNBlackmail
— Razor (@hale_razor) July 5, 2017
Feature photo | Donald Trump enters the debate hall during the Republican presidential debate sponsored by CNN, March 10, 2016. Alan Diaz | AP