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CNN’s Swift Handling of Russia Story Retraction Shows Serious Concern About ‘Fake News’ Reputation

Over the past weekend, CNN.com published a story that connected the Trump campaign — in particular Anthony Scaramucci — to Russian banks. Shortly after it was published, it was retracted and a public apology to Scaramucci was made, who accepted it with noted grace and aplomb.

But CNN’s handling of this isolated yet embarrassing journalistic misstep was not over. Last night news broke that the three individuals responsible for the publishing of this story tendered their resignations where they were readily accepted by CNN.com management. One has to think the individuals might have been goaded into resigning. Were they ostensibly fired? I imagine the truth of how that decision went down lies only with CNN HR officials and the individuals themselves.

But it almost doesn’t matter. They are out of jobs as a result of a single misstep, which puts in stark relief the razor’s edge on which journalists must balance on a daily basis. But the fact that there appeared to be zero tolerance for one such mistake (that notably never made CNN broadcast) demonstrates how concerned they are with their current journalistic reputation.

The reaction from certain precincts on the right to the retracted story — and resigned staffers — was a predictable mix of schadenfreude and “toldja so!” Fox News primetime hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity seemed to delight in CNN.com’s miscue, conflating it into a larger narrative that serves their ideological goals: that CNN’s consistent coverage of an investigation into ties and possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign is simply “Fake News!”

But there were other respected thought leaders from the conservative side of the aisle. As CNN’s own Brian Stelter highlighted in his Reliable Sources newsletter, Commentary editor John Podhoretz called it “impressive and decisive” action, adding that “CNN acknowledged its own error and took action almost immediately. This is what people should want.” The NYPost‘s Seth Mandeltweeted: “CNN is taking this really seriously, and setting quite an example for media accountability,”adding “Seriously. This is one of those times media critics on the right should speak up and praise CNN. This is pride-swallowing, grownup stuff…”

Cynics may think that it is self-serving for Stelter to highlight these two comments but he is right to include them, and they are correct in their assessment.

CNN handled this with the sort of zero tolerance that should be lauded across any ideological divide. Seems obvious to say, but we do not live in a perfect world, and mistakes will be made. The fact that three highly respected journalism professionals are now out of a job for posting a single-sourced story just demonstrates the dramatic difference between the standards to which a true news outfit is held, and the lack of standards followed by opinion news programming across the cable news landscape. No one ever got fired for providing a wrong (or ill-informed) opinion (though maybe that should change.)

In a recent breakfast meeting with media writers, CNN president Jeff Zucker was asked about the venom CNN was taking from a very vocal set of critics and he made clear that he took it very seriously. Not just with regard to the safety of his staff, but he also seemed to suggest that he understood that, in some marginalized circles, the reputation of CNN was extremely low, and if not handled properly its’s larger reputation for many viewers was also at stake. This may be at the heart of why these three “resigned.”

It’s not hard to imagine this story happening at a competitor. FoxNews.com recently retracted a story regarding the death of former DNC staffer Seth Rich. His death has spawned numerous conspiracy theories and has become a lightening rod for controversy from both sides. To our knowledge, no one at FoxNews.com lost their job as a result.

Maybe it’s also useful to look at the resignation of the three journalists behind the retraction of this single sourced story by comparing them to who still remains on CNN’s payroll.

Oh, hey look at that! There’s Jeffrey Lord and Jason Miller (aka, the Washington Generals of CNN) appearing almost nightly on CNN panels. Zucker has defended putting these guys on-air because he correctly believes that viewers are interested in the “narrative” of how these characters interact and develop. And watching these guys go at it day in day out is in fact entertaining. But its not news and often they say things that are factually indefensible.

Cable news is often more concerned with entertainment packaged as news than hard news itself. CNN still does important work, and the promotion of the Fake News criticism by President Trump is by turns “unconscionable  and dangerous,” as Zucker has said.  But because the Commander-in-Chief is actively undermining the reputation of a major media outlet and so many of his acolytes are buying it, means that more than ever, they need to be on their toes and at their best at all times.

Now, the CNN news desk has three less real professionals for making a single mistake, while Jeffrey Lord still gets a paycheck. That decision may be as necessary as it is depressing.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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