CNN Investigative Journalism: Policing Internet Videos

Last Sunday, President Trump continued his weekly tradition of posting adolescent, self-defeating statements on Twitter, by tweeting an Internet video of him fake-pummeling famous wrestling promoter, Vince McMahon. The scene came from Trump’s brief stint with World Wrestling Entertainment a few years back, and it had been modified by an anonymous Reddit user to replace McMahon’s head with a CNN logo. The meme somehow caught Trump’s attention, and he passed it along to his millions of followers.

Its message was painfully obvious: In the “fake news” war between CNN and President Trump, Trump was winning.

The tweet was goofy, undignified, and of course unsurprising. And like the other times — because Trump is our nation’s leader — it made news. Network commentators discussed the video at length, and pondered whether or not the imagery might inspire acts of violence against the media. Liberals feared it would. Righties mostly laughed off the notion. Beyond that, there wasn’t much more to the story. At least, there shouldn’t have been.

Some in the media decided that it was important to focus not just on Trump, but also on the random individual who introduced the video to the Internet in the first place — this Reddit user who goes by the not-so-witty screen-name of “HanA**holeSolo”.  As it turns out, Mr. Solo is into more than just wrestling memes. He also has a history of posting anti-Semitic and racist imagery on social media. And though it’s highly unlikely that the president knew any of this at the time of his tweet, CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski dug even deeper, figuring out the true identity of the poster, and contacting him.

The inquiry apparently left HanA**holeSolo shaken enough to delete all of his Reddit posts, and issue multiple public apologies, including a specific one to CNN where he insisted that he had no intention of encouraging violence against the media. He additionally agreed to do an interview with Kaczynski, where, as Kaczynski wrote in a piece for CNN.com, he 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.”

I should probably note that as someone who writes for Bernie Goldberg’s website (and manages some of his social media), I’ve read a good number of anti-Semitic responses to him from nameless Trump fans who don’t like Mr. Goldberg’s criticisms of our president. I have zero sympathy for such people, and I’m perfectly fine with them being put on the hot seat for their bigoted remarks. But a couple of paragraphs in Kaczynski’s piece truly bothered me from a journalistic standpoint:

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.”

Should any of that change? That sounds an awful lot like blackmail — a threat to expose the person’s identity unless he sufficiently repents for his sins, as defined by CNN. This is wrong, and it’s not an appropriate measure for a serious news organization.

If CNN views this person’s identity as relevant to a legitimate story, his name should be released. If not, it shouldn’t. The decision should in no way be predicated on the individual’s future actions, and whether or not they’re deemed acceptable by CNN.

That’s not news. That’s behavioral conditioning.

At this point, it’s hard to see how CNN has even met the “legitimate story” requirement. A president’s conduct is certainly newsworthy, but the conduct of some random stranger whose meme he impulsively tweeted? Where’s the association, and how is this national news?

Normally, I dismiss the notion put forth by fervent Trump supporters that the president’s tweets bait the media into revealing their biases (since those tweets typically only damage the president), but in this particular case, that appears to be exactly what has happened. By going down this road to nowhere, CNN is coming across as though it’s trying to settle a score. And in doing so, the network is lending credence to the president’s grossly over-applied “fake news” narrative.

This is not the shot of credibility CNN needed after losing three journalists last week, due to faulty reporting. In fact, the network has now put itself in a position where it might have to issue an apology to an anonymous bigot on the Internet, in order to save some face.