It must have sounded like a great scoop. CNN reporter Thomas Frank heard from a single source that claimed the Senate Intelligence Committee was probing Trump transition team member Anthony Scaramucci for a supposed meeting with a Russian investment fund CEO, and ran the story on Thursday. By Friday, though, the story had mysteriously disappeared, and it took more than twelve hours for CNN to officially retract the story — and only after Buzzfeed began asking questions about it:
The now-deleted story, by investigative reporter Thomas Frank, was published Thursday and cited a single, unnamed source who claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee was looking into a “$10-billion Russian investment fund whose chief executive met with a member of President Donald Trump’s transition team four days before Trump’s inauguration.”
But by Friday evening, the story had vanished from CNN’s website. It was not immediately clear when the story was removed, but a tweet linking to the story, from CNN’s Politics account, was also deleted sometime Friday evening.
After noticing the story’s disappearance, BuzzFeed News contacted CNN. More than an hour later, an editor’s note appeared on CNN’s website. A company representative sent BuzzFeed News a link to the note, but did not answer other questions about why the story was removed.
“The story did not meet CNN’s editorial standards and has been retracted,” the editor’s note said. It did not say which parts of the story failed to meet the company’s standards. The note also apologized to Anthony Scaramucci, a member of Trump’s transition team and an adviser to his presidential campaign, who was named in the report.
Over the weekend, CNN’s executives busied themselves with a new process for reporting on Russia, Buzzfeed later learned. According to an internal memo, all reporting from CNN on that topic will have to get specific approval from executives before appearing on any of their platforms. Jon Passantino’s source says that disciplinary action will also be forthcoming over last week’s debacle:
A source close to the network, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter, told BuzzFeed News earlier that the story was a “massive, massive [f***] up and people will be disciplined.” The person said CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker and the head of the company’s human resources department are “directly involved” in an internal investigation examining how the story was handled.
It will be worth watching just how CNN handles the discipline in this specific case. Did Frank’s source provide solid reporting before, and just get this one wrong? Or did the source simply sucker Frank? How much effort went into corroborating the information? While CNN is at it, they may also want to explain why the story was allowed to be deleted off their platforms without any explanation at all for hours, which also seems like an editorial failure of its own.
In part, though, this happens because of the hyperbolic and hyper-competitive environment in which the national media now operates on the Trump administration, and especially the Russia angles. There seems to be almost a desperation to provide grist for that particular mill, as no real evidence has emerged of any collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence, despite several months of focus on it by Congress, the FBI, and national media outlets. So far at least it’s a dry hole, and yet media outlets insist on pumping it continuously — and that need to provide new reporting on a weak narrative seems like a pretty good incentive to lower standards on reporting in order to get something fresh to put in front of readers and viewers. If that is what happened in this case — we don’t know that for sure yet, of course — it would be an utterly predictable outcome.
Perhaps this might provide a lesson to other outlets about this particular story. It’s one that will in all likelihood get ignored.