Danielle Ryan, journalist
CNN has introduced strict new publishing guidelines for stories involving Russia. The decision was made after a series of embarrassing incidents for the network relating to its Russia coverage.
Late last month, three journalists for the network, including one executive editor, resigned after publishing a story which linked Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci to a Russian investment fund. The story, which cited a single anonymous source, turned out to have major factual inaccuracies, according to the subject. The report claimed Scaramucci had met a Russian investor before Trump’s inauguration. In fact, it had simply be a random, unplanned encounter in a restaurant on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum. CNN quickly retracted and removed the report from its website. An internal email sent by CNN Money executive director Rich Barbieri and obtained by BuzzFeed said: “No one should publish any content involving Russia without coming to me and Jason [Farkas]”. Farkas is CNN’s vice president. The email continued: “This applies to social, video, editorial, and MoneyStream. No exceptions.” It is understood that the new guidelines apply to all areas of the network.
For many who follow US coverage of Russia, this was a surprisingly fast reaction from CNN, who, in general, aren’t known for their expertise, impartiality or dedication to fairness on Russia. To make matters worse, just two days later, a video emerged of CNN producer John Bonifield calling the coverage of US President Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia “mostly bullshit”. Despite the fact that the producer is based in Atlanta and not part of CNN’s politics team, the video made a stir online. Bonifield claimed that his network was giving the Trump-Russia story so much coverage “because of ratings”.
One would think CNN might have paused for thought a few weeks earlier when they reported that former FBI director James Comey would deny that he told Trump he was not under investigation — only to issue a correction later when Comey told a congressional hearing exactly the opposite. After so many similar missteps, other news organizations would do well to follow CNN’s example here and introduce their own new guidelines. But the reality is that it’s too little, too late. There has been so little accountability when it comes to covering Russia in the West that it’s wishful thinking to assume embarrassment from even the most egregious errors will change anything. Throughout the entire US presidential campaign and the first five months of Trump’s presidency, reports billed as bombshell exclusives often contain little to no evidence and only anonymous sourcing. There have been so many of these stories appearing in mainstream US media that it’s hard to keep track. Meanwhile, real evidence proving Trump “colluded” with Russia remains curiously thin.
Anyone hopeful that the latest Russia debacles at CNN will prompt a new bout of conscientiousness and integrity is likely to be sorely disappointed. What’s been clear for a long time is that there is only one viewpoint on the ‘Russia story’ permitted: Russia is bad and Trump colluded with Russia. Any journalists, pundits, analysts and historians who have taken issue with how the story has been covered have been branded, regardless of their credentials, as Kremlin stooges and useful idiots for Vladimir Putin. Even those who are no fans of Trump are accused of being apologists for him.
The caught-on-camera CNN producer said it best when he expressed cynicism about the ethics and standards reporters learn at journalism school. In reality, he said, the news is a business. Ratings are more important than facts or substance — and the Trump-Russia story is “good for business right now”.
Covering the Russia story impartially would result in reduced interest from consumers of news because the sensationalism that attracts viewers and readers would be absent. The fact that there still appears to be no real evidence that Trump himself is in cahoots with the Kremlin would render the whole story painfully boring until some real smoking gun emerged. To prevent this, rolling news organizations have decided to cover the story 24/7, regardless of what new information is — or is not — produced. To see how deeply ingrained the Trump-Russia collusion narrative is in American media, we should also consider that not everyone applauded CNN for its decisive action in taking the story down and firing the staff involved. Many on the left were angered that CNN was backing down and failing to defend its reporters. Some argued that journalism is never error free and everyone makes mistakes.
While it is true, everyone makes mistakes, a constant stream of errors on the Russia beat can no longer be considered forgivable bungles. They happen so often now that they must be considered the result of chronic carelessness.
To those who would defend the reporters responsible for the botched CNN story and make the case that they didn’t knowingly commit any journalistic crime, it should be made very clear that hitting publish on a story which relies on a single anonymous source is no innocent mistake. It is negligent and totally contrary to what good investigative journalism is supposed to be. It would be wonderful if other reporters learned something from this fiasco, but that is unlikely. The media has committed itself to proving that Trump made a deal with Putin — and they’re not ready to give up.