Last week, CNN’s investigative unit published a piece that asserted that the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Treasury Department were looking into potentially inappropriate activity related to a meeting between Wall Street bigshot/Trump 2016 fundraiser Anthony Scaramucci and an executive at the Russian Direct Investment Fund. Late Friday night, CNN retracted and deleted the story. On Monday, three CNN employees involved with the piece—the reporter who wrote it, the executive editor for investigations, and an assistant managing editor for investigations—resigned. Since then, President Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. have been tweeting nearly nonstop about CNN. For example:
Are the Donalds Trump right? Did CNN finally get caught doing FAKE NEWS for real? Should we be mad at CNN for screwing up and giving Trump the opportunity to bash the media for cause? Let’s take a deep breath and figure out what is happening.
What was wrong with the CNN story?
CNN says the piece “did not meet CNN’s editorial standards.” Politico reports that the piece’s publication violated internal rules requiring that stories involving anonymous sources be shown to an executive editor before publication. Politico also says the network’s legal team “had not fully reviewed the final piece.” (It’s common practice in journalism to have lawyers vet stories that involve accusations of criminal or otherwise inappropriate behavior.) BuzzFeed notes that the CNN piece cited only a “single, unnamed source” and says the network is instituting further pre-publication guidelines regarding the handling of stories involving Trump and Russia.
But what was actually wrong with the story?
CNN hasn’t said, but we can gather some clues from a copy of the story that’s been accidentally preserved on the website of a local TV station in New York. The piece revolves around a Jan. 16 meeting between Scaramucci and Russia Direct Investment Fund chief executive Kirill Dmitriev. CNN spoke to Scaramucci for its piece, and he described the “meeting” to the network as a brief, incidental interaction at a restaurant in Switzerland during a conference. The since-retracted piece says that Scaramucci discussed this interaction on Bloomberg TV the day after it happened, which is true. Scaramucci told Bloomberg that he spoke to Dmitriev about the possibility of facilitating relationships between the Russian fund and American executives. He also noted to Bloomberg that he would have to conduct any such activity within appropriate ethical guidelines. (At the time, Scaramucci was expected to take an official job in the Trump administration, but that didn’t end up happening.)
The CNN story said the Treasury Department was investigating the Scarmucci/Dmitriev meeting at the behest of two Democratic senators (Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren and Maryland’s Ben Cardin) who wanted to know whether it had involved a discussion of the economic sanctions the Obama administration had imposed on Russia. Again, though, the entire story has been retracted. The only thing we should have confidence in is what Scaramucci confirmed: that a conversation between him and Dmitriev took place on Jan. 16.
Reading between the lines, it seems like what happened is that CNN hyped up a story about the Scaramucci/Dmitriev conversation even though 1) Scaramucci had already acknowledged the conversation publicly while noting that any action he took as a result of it would have to be governed by ethics rules and 2) There’s no evidence that any investigative body has found evidence of inappropriate activity involving Scaramucci or the fund. (The CNN story said the Senate Intelligence Committee is “examining” the Russian fund, which could mean anything or nothing, and that the Treasury Department is “looking into” the Jan. 16 conversation, which is equally vague. If you read the story closely you’ll notice that it doesn’t say that the Senate committee is investigating the Jan. 16 conversation, even though the framing of the piece would give you that impression.)
But Trump is melting down and claiming in an extended Twitter rant that this quickly acknowledged error in editorial judgment on CNN’s part proves that everything negative that’s ever been published about him anywhere is made up.
Is there anything else going on in the world that the president should be worrying about instead of a retracted story, which didn’t even make much news when it was originally published, involving a peripheral campaign figure?
The further deterioration of the situation in Syria and the pending legislation that would reduce the government’s spending on health coverage for low- and middle-income Americans by a trillion dollars.
So, nothing important.
That’s correct. Cable news is more important than those things.
James O’Keefe is also back in the news because of CNN.
Yes, O’Keefe, the infamous right-wing provocateur, has re-emerged with another one of his famous “sting” videos, which purports to show a CNN producer admitting that Trump-Russia stories are overhyped for ratings purposes. Trump’s son Donald Jr. has been pushing O’Keefe’s video on Twitter. However, O’Keefe has a history of editing videos misleadingly and engaging in other unethical behavior, and the CNN producer in O’Keefe’s video covers medical subjects such as pediatric heart surgery and the Ice Bucket Challenge, not news or politics.
Is the whole Russia story fake news?
No. While some Russia stories are, indeed, overhyped by Twitter conspiracy theorists and news outlets who know that readers will click-click-click-clickety-click on them, they are not all made up for ratings. For instance, Trump’s first national security adviser, who had previously been paid tens of thousands of dollars by entities related to the Russian government, resigned because he lied about a potentially inappropriate conversation he had with the Russian ambassador. Donald Trump then asked the director of the FBI to stop investigating the case. Those things really happened in reality and are not fake.
What is Anthony Scaramucci saying about all of this?
Scaramucci accepted CNN’s apology.
Should CNN Jeff Zucker resign and live the rest of his life in disgrace as a hobo?
Yes, but not because of this.