To say that CNN blackmailed a man over a wrestling GIF he posted on Reddit is probably an exaggeration. But the fact that I’m even writing such a sentence is a sign that something went quite wrong in the network’s approach to what was not, in the scheme of things, a particularly consequential story.
To recap: On Sunday, President Trump tweeted a video version of a GIF of a pro wrestling match that showed him pummeling an opponent whose head had been digitally replaced with the CNN logo. On Monday, CNN’s “KFile” investigations team tracked down the Reddit user who had originally posted the GIF. On Tuesday, KFile’s Andrew Kaczynski posted a story about tracking him down and reported that the user, HanAssholeSolo, had apologized and taken down the post, along with other past racist and anti-Semitic posts on the site. Kaczynski said CNN had decided not to publish the user’s identity but that the network “reserves the right” to do so depending on his future behavior. That sounded enough like blackmail to enough people that, by Tuesday night, the hashtag #cnnblackmail was a trending topic on Twitter.
That is how one of America’s three major cable news networks came to spend part of Wednesday defending itself against claims that it had blackmailed a 15-year-old Reddit user on a day when tensions with North Korea, the G-20 summit, and the ongoing health care debate led the news.
To be clear, it does not appear that the Reddit user was actually 15 years old, as Donald Trump Jr. and others claimed, without evidence, on Twitter. Kaczynski says HanAssholeSolo is actually a middle-aged man. There is also no evidence that the network blackmailed him: CNN says it made no deal of any kind with the man and that he had already apologized and retracted his posts before returning the network’s call.
Despite all of that, this was still a remarkable self-own by a news organization whose credibility was already under assault from the president and his supporters. In the span of two days, it managed to turn a story about the president making veiled threats of violence against the media into a story about the media seemingly intimidating a private citizen in its haste to score a point against the president.
To put it in pro wrestling jargon: CNN turned heel.
It may be true, as Kaczynski asserts, that the network didn’t intend to threaten an anonymous Reddit user. Regardless, the threat was implied, making this at best a case of poor wording and sloppy editorial oversight. That’s the type of unforced error that CNN can ill afford when it’s going toe-to-toe with Trump and his supporters, who will seize on the slightest excuse to paint the network as dishonest and out-of-touch.
But the deeper problem here was a lack of perspective on CNN’s part.
Trump has embraced adviser Steve Bannon’s casting of the media as “the opposition party” to his presidency. It’s a strategy that has served Trump amazingly well, politically, because it allows him to deflect critical news coverage of his administration by turning the criticism back onto the news organizations that report it. CNN and other mainstream outlets present themselves as objective arbiters of truth, but Trump frames them instead as politically motivated actors crafting their own subjective narratives to compete with his own.
When there is no objective source of truth, the best liar wins—and that’s exactly how Trump wants it.
No doubt it is sorely tempting for an organization such as CNN, finding itself under assault by a mendacious president, to jump into the cage and fight back, even if it means getting a little dirty in the process. It’s an approach that sometimes works for scrappy online media companies and niche magazines, and more power to them. (Kaczynski and his team honed their craft at BuzzFeed News, where they gathered a pile of juicy, occasionally lurid scoops before CNN snapped them up in October.) And it’s well and good for CNN to stand up now and then when faced with an abhorrent lie or a deep injustice, and declare that this is right and that’s wrong and the network is taking a stand even if it means dropping the usual pomp of objectivity to do so.
But diving into the muck in pursuit of social media trolls isn’t a good look for an outlet whose success depends on mainstream credibility and a bipartisan audience. It may be newsworthy when the president tweets a violent GIF, but in this case, little was revealed by tracking down the private citizen who may have created it—especially since it appears CNN missed the crucial link in the process by which it appeared on Trump’s phone.
Uglier still is the fact that this particular investigative crusade seemed to have as its objective not the defense of democracy or the downtrodden, but of CNN’s own bruised ego. There was a tonal mismatch between the seriousness of the topic and CNN’s coverage, which began with an official statement admonishing Trump and culminated in the network’s faux-magnanimous decision to let the anonymous Reddit user off with a warning. That continued Wednesday when CNN political hack Chris Cillizza sought to justify the network’s treatment of the story by comparing it to Trump’s mendacious voter fraud and Obama-wiretapping claims.
When it comes to Trump’s attacks on the media, there’s a fine line between standing up to him and getting trolled. This was one match in which CNN should have probably tagged out.