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29 June 2017

CNN’s Russia story debacle came at the worst possible time for the network

Lex Haris, CNN’s investigations editor, traveled to a journalism conference in Phoenix last week. In hindsight, his timing was terrible.

While Haris was away, his group published a story on CNN.com that reported — citing a single anonymous source — that Senate investigators were looking into a meeting between a member of President Trump’s transition team, Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci, and an executive of a Russian investment fund before Trump took office. The story seemed to advance the narrative of ties between Trump campaign officials and people close to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

One problem: When challenged on the particulars of the story, CNN acknowledged that it couldn’t stand by it. It retracted it and apologized to Scaramucci on Saturday. On Monday, Haris and the editor and reporter of the piece, Eric Lichtblau and Thomas Frank, resigned from CNN.

The sequence of events led Trump to take a kind of victory lap on Tuesday. He turned to Twitter to bash CNN and other media outlets (including The Washington Post) that have aggressively reported on his associates’ connections to Russian officials during the 2016 campaign and pre-inaugural period.

“Wow, CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!” Trump tweeted. He added later, “Fake News CNN is looking at big management changes now that they got caught falsely pushing their phony Russian stories. Ratings way down!”

The Fix’s Callum Borchers explains why CNN retracted a story about a Trump campaign aide, leading to the resignation of three CNN employees. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

[What you don’t see in O’Keefe CNN video may be as important as what you do]

In fact, CNN isn’t looking at “big management changes,” according to senior executives at the network. But Trump — long resistant to admitting his own falsehoods — is unlikely to correct his tweet anytime soon. He has also been silent about errors committed by other news organizations, such as Fox News, that he deems to be friendly.

Nevertheless, the Scaramucci story was another ill-timed setback for CNN, which like other news organizations is under intense scrutiny from Trump and his supporters. The highly charged environment has led CNN Chairman Jeff Zucker to stress internally the need to “play error-free ball” in reporting on Trump.

But the zeal to break news can create haste that leads to flawed reporting. Like all major news organizations, CNN is under pressure to produce scoops that draw ratings and Web traffic, and to stay competitive with the likes of the New York Times and The Washington Post, which have been leaders on the Trump-Russia story.

Among its other high-profile debacles over the past month, CNN fired comedian Kathy Griffin, who co-hosted its New Year’s Eve program, after she took part in a photo shoot in which she posed with a bloody facsimile of Trump’s severed head. It corrected a story that wrongly predicted what former FBI director James B. Comey would say about Trump in his congressional testimony. And it subsequently canceled a new series, “Believer,” and fired host Reza Aslan after he described Trump in vulgar terms on Twitter.

The heightened environment may also explain why CNN went to such extraordinary lengths to address its Scaramucci story. News organizations typically issue corrections for errors, but CNN did far more: It apologized for it, removed it from its website, and accepted the resignations of those involved in producing it. Resignations are usually reserved for plagiarism or worse journalistic offenses.

The Scaramucci story marked the first time CNN has retracted a story since Zucker took over as chairman in late 2011. Zucker has a long and sometimes fraught relationship with Trump, having greenlighted his reality shows, “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” while he ran NBC, but occasionally drawing criticism from Trump while running CNN.

CNN hasn’t said specifically that its Russia story was wrong — only that it didn’t meet its “editorial standards” (a spokesman declined on Tuesday to say specifically how it fell short). However, news organizations typically submit important stories to multiple layers of editing, which doesn’t appear to be the case here.

Indeed, Haris — the top editor in the unit that produced the story — apparently wasn’t directly involved in its preparation, given that he was away at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference late last week as the story moved toward publication, according to a person familiar with the process.

Haris nevertheless took responsibility for it in a statement. “On Friday, CNN retracted a story published by my team. As executive editor of that team, I have resigned,” Haris said. “I’ve been with CNN since 2001, and am sure about one thing: This is a news organization that prizes accuracy and fairness above all else. I am leaving, but will carry those principles wherever I go.”

In addition to Haris, CNN said it accepted the resignations of Lichtblau, a veteran reporter and editor hired from the New York Times earlier this year, and Frank, formerly of USA Today. Frank was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for a series of stories about state and local pension funds.

Under Zucker, CNN began beefing up its reporting staff in anticipation of the 2016 election cycle, which produced record ratings and profits for the company. It started the investigative unit that Haris ran earlier this year; it now employs about 30 journalists, making it one of the largest in the country. Much of the investigative unit’s work (including the Scaramucci story) appears not on TV, but on CNN.com, which is among the most heavily trafficked news sites in the world.

Its investment in journalism has paid off with a series of solid stories, such as its report last month that Russian government officials had discussed potentially “derogatory” information about Trump in conversations intercepted by U.S. intelligence sources during the presidential campaign.

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