Trump to CNN: "What about all the other phony stories"?

After getting burned on a single-sourced story last week, CNN made some major internal changes to their reporting process. Three journalists involved in the retracted article resigned, and management imposed new restrictions on any reporting on Russian interference in the 2016 election. That’s not enough for Donald Trump, who took to Twitter this morning to complain about CNN’s performance on other stories:

Actually, the ratings are way up — and that might be part of the problem. Project Veritas launched a new undercover video series last night called “American Pravda,” and its first target is CNN. James O’Keefe caught a CNN producer on camera discussing the internal pressures on the newsroom to feed the Russia story, which has spiked the ratings over the last several weeks — even though few at CNN apparently believe it’s a real story:

Project Veritas has released a video of CNN Producer John Bonifield who was caught on hidden-camera admitting that there is no proof to CNN’s Russia narrative.

“I mean, it’s mostly bullshit right now,” Bonifield says. “Like, we don’t have any giant proof.”

He confirms that the driving factor at CNN is ratings:

“It’s a business, people are like the media has an ethical phssssss… All the nice cutesy little ethics that used to get talked about in journalism school you’re just like, that’s adorable. That’s adorable. This is a business.” …

“Just to give you some context, President Trump pulled out of the climate accords and for a day and a half we covered the climate accords. And the CEO of CNN (Jeff Zucker) said in our internal meeting, he said good job everybody covering the climate accords, but we’re done with that, let’s get back to Russia.”

None of this is terribly surprising, and it’s one reason why the badly handled story regarding Anthony Scaramucci forced CNN into changing its approach. (As John pointed out last night, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple notes that it’s not exactly an isolated incident there, either.) Right now, CNN is catering to the viewers that are flocking to the channel by essentially giving them what they want. Right now, those viewers want 24/7/365 Russia, just as they wanted 24/7/365 Malaysia Air 370 three years earlier. The desire to fill that appetite led CNN into some poor journalistic choices then, too, and ended up embarrassing the network at times. But the advertiser dollars certainly made up for the momentary discomfort then, and likely will now too — at least for a little while.

The most damning parts of this video are an admission by Bonifield that the network is taking a much different approach to covering Trump than it did with Barack Obama, and that few think that the Russia story will produce anything substantial. Even those disclosures won’t surprise CNN’s critics, especially the latter — and the network’s changes to rein in its reporting on Russia certainly sent that message, too.

By the way, James O’Keefe is promising more from their undercover work at CNN, but it’s worth keeping this in perspective too:

To the extent of Bonifield’s own assessment of the Russia story, that’s a fair point. However, it doesn’t exactly apply to Bonifield’s description of edicts from CNN executives, unless he was not telling the truth about them. PV has released full and unedited videos on its previous projects; we’ll see if they do that again once all of their reporting on CNN has been finished, and then we can see whether PV edited it fairly — and how broadly Bonifield’s assessment is shared at CNN.

Most media consumers want to see rational scrutiny of those in power, applied evenly and consistently. The obsession with Russia and clearly biased attacks on Trump do nothing for CNN’s credibility, and that damage will last a little longer than the ratings bubble they’re temporarily creating for themselves. Media feeding frenzies end up consuming the sharks as well as their intended targets, as the CNN debacle over the weekend proved. The network did the right thing in retracting the story and holding its employees accountable for it, but as this video also suggests, the problem at CNN may not be limited to a reporter and two senior editors.