Not all of the fireworks yesterday went up into the night sky. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski tracked down the Reddit user who created the wrestling meme retweeted by Donald Trump, discovering along the way that the same user had also created anti-Semitic and racist themes online. The user deleted all of his old works and posted an apology after getting messages from CNN but before calling Kaczynski back. CNN chose to protect his anonymity, but one line in the CNN article turned the story away from Trump and the user, and squarely on the news channel itself:
After posting his apology, “HanA**holeSolo” called CNN’s KFile and confirmed his identity. In the interview, “HanA**holeSolo” sounded nervous about his identity being revealed and 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.
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.
That was widely interpreted as a threat to “dox” the man in order to intimidate him into silence:
“Trump was bad. CNN is worse: CNN threatens amateur satirist behind Trump video: make fun of us again and we dox you,” WikiLeaks wrote on Twitter.
“I can’t emphasize how bad this is on CNN’s part,” wrote German Lopez, a reporter for liberal website Vox. “This is basically ‘don’t post stuff we don’t like or we’ll dox you.’ Extremely unethical.”
Ben Shapiro, who has certainly been no fan of Trump, calls it “blackmail.” He also wonders how CNN would claim that his identity would be newsworthy in the future if it isn’t now:
The whole story is frightening, and obviously an attempt to both nail Trump and discourage people from smacking CNN. Here’s the thing: the story here isn’t the guy who made the meme. It’s the president who tweeted it. Do we really want to establish a rule wherein every piece of information distributed now becomes suspect subject to the other, unrelated work of the source? That’s a pretty dangerous rule. Trump’s tweet was unpresidential and ridiculous. It wasn’t anti-Semitic or racist. What do the other anti-Semitic or racist memes made by the guy who made the CNN logo meme have to do with anything? And if this fellow’s other material is so newsworthy, wouldn’t CNN have an obligation to publicize his identity? Why would an apology cause CNN to hide his identity? The obvious implication is that CNN was happy to hide the guy’s identity so long as he followed their recommended playbook.
CNN has accomplished the Houdini-esque feat of turning itself into the villain after President Trump tweeted a gif of himself body-slamming the CNN logo and punching it. This should demonstrate once again that Trump isn’t ruining CNN — CNN is so obsessed with Trump that it’s busily ruining whatever is left of its credibility.
Kaczynski pushed back on Twitter in a series of statements last night. Critics had the sequence incorrect, he stated, noting that the apology and the deletions came before any contact had been made with the Reddit user. Furthermore, there was no agreement to keep the man’s name out of the story, but instead was a choice by Kaczynski on the assumption that the man wouldn’t do anything newsworthy in the future:
This line is being misinterpreted. It was intended only to mean we made no agreement w/the man about his identity. https://t.co/9FL6EvTikx
— andrew kaczynski 🤔 (@KFILE) July 5, 2017
He later tweeted that the Reddit user supported CNN’s statement:
FYI "HanAssholeSolo" just called me."I am in total agreement with your statement. I was not threatened in anyway." https://t.co/7se1B8Z29D
— andrew kaczynski 🤔 (@KFILE) July 5, 2017
This seems like a rather minor angle to take on the CNN meme story, which is probably why drives the perception of a threat. As Shapiro notes, the real story is — or was — about Trump’s judgment in repeating it. Jackasses make rude or worse memes all the time, which rarely get the investigative-reporting treatment, until a media outlet becomes the butt of the joke. Just doing the story at all looks more than a little vindictive.
On the other hand, it’s not completely a non-story either. When a president tweets someone’s meme out, it’s worth a little research, if for no other reason than to see whether it’s connected to larger political efforts. Kaczynski has made his living on doing deep-dive research; there was a time a few years ago when conservative sites benefited from his work more than others. The problem is that the story really didn’t lead anywhere else, and that looks like the real reason that CNN decided not to use the man’s name. They would have been better advised to simply report on the apology and hold onto everything else in case “HanA******Solo” ever decided to begin creating controversial messages and images again. In doing so, they made themselves the story — and pursuing this at all made it clear that they see themselves that way, too.