The bizzaro-world of the Donald Trump era has put a lot of people in strange positions. For example, I have had huge issues with CNN in the past, and I am currently fighting with them over host Brian Stelter having bailed at the last moment on a long-agreed to interview for my podcast. But I have somehow found myself defending them when most of my former “conservative” allies have been savaging their coverage of our “Republican” president.
Over the July 4th holiday, CNN broke a story about an anonymous Reddit user who was the original source for Trump’s now infamous “Trump Physically Attacks CNN” video. They were able to track him down because the user had bragged publicly about his role in the massive news story. CNN decided NOT to reveal his identity while issuing a poorly worded statement that indicated that they still “reserved the right” to do so in the future if he continued to post the type of “ugly” material they had found unrelated to the Trump video.
The outrage among “conservatives” was immediate and overwhelming. The hashtag #CNNBlackmail was among the top trends on Twitter both last night and then for most of today.
The objections, which came from many Anti-Trump conservatives — as well as the “Cult 45” variety — seemed to be based in the idea that CNN was “blackmailing” and “threatening” the Reddit user into silence and “bullying” him out of his free speech rights. This perspective is, in my view, absurd and motivated more by Trump Love/CNN Hatred, then by any sensible analysis of the facts and use of basic logic.
Let me first stipulate that the statement CNN put out was dumb and easily allowed for Trump fans to misinterpret what was really going on here. Other than that, however, I fail to see what CNN did wrong here, except for perhaps going too EASY on the Reddit user.
There is absolutely no question that the original Trump tweet of the video in question was a huge and legitimate news story. Therefore the origins of it are also inherently newsworthy, especially when it turns out that it came from a rather unsavory corner of the Internet normally well below the standards for use in presidential presentations.
The Reddit user in question then bragged publicly about having been the original creator. This not only allowed him to be found, but also removed his “right” to remain anonymous in this situation (it appears that Trump fans, many of whom are anonymous themselves, mistakenly thinking anonymity is a sacred “right” is at the source of a lot of the “confusion” here).
At this point CNN had the journalistic authority to reveal the name of this person. Ironically, had they have done so, I doubt there would have been nearly as much controversy then there was over the possibility that they MIGHT disclose it in the future.
Here is where the “threat” charge against CNN also breaks down when exposed to even some rudimentary rationality. What CNN appears to be doing, in an effort to be extremely fair to this guy, is make a distinction between posts he made BEFORE he became newsworthy, and those he might (if he breaks his promise to be “good,” I guess) make AFTER he became legitimate news fodder.
CNN is NOT curtailing his future free speech. They are simply MAYBE hindering his ability to say some things ANONYMOUSLY, which, again, is NOT a “right” and which he surrendered any claim to when he took credit for the video.
He can still say whatever the hell he wants (heck, he could open a new anonymous account and no one would know the damn difference!), but CNN is simply making it clear that if he posts “racist” material again, that “Trump Video Source Posts Racist Crap” is obviously NOW a news story and that they will be forced to use his real name.
Now, having CNN play “free speech nanny” makes me extremely uncomfortable, but that is far more about how their ill-advised statement was perceived, rather than what is really going on here. Again, CNN is actually giving this guy a break and he has apparently said himself that CNN did not “threaten” him.
I find the outrage here particularly peculiar/hilarious given that Trump fans are claiming that the National Enquirer, which DID publish a story about Morning Joe which is perfectly consistent with their story of Trump having “blackmailed” them, was NOT “blackmail.” CNN’s NOT publishing a name they had a right to do so, however, IS somehow definitely “blackmail.”
Similarly, Trump fans continue to expose the folly of the SATs eliminating the analogy section of the college-entrance test when they try to claim that CNN is hypocritical for protecting anonymous sources on Trump/Russia, but not for a dopey Reddit video. Uh, this Reddit user made no deal with CNN for information and, once again, publicly took credit for the video. If a CNN Trump/Russia source did the same, I can guarantee you that Fox News would have no problem “outing” them and that Trump fans would cheer them mightily.
The part of the reaction to this story which has been most depressing to me is that many Anti-Trump conservatives have jumped on this bandwagon, apparently seeing it as a rare chance to prove to the “conservative base” that they are still “down” with the anti-media struggle and willing to take on the King’s enemies when warranted.
And to think, I used to believe that conservatives were the more logical/consistent/principled thinkers within our public discourse. This “Trump Era” truly has been enlightening.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.