I recently wrote about my concern over the publication by CNN of a statement that it had identified the man responsible for a satiric wrestling video that was reposted by President Donald Trump. CNN declared that the man had removed not just the video but other material deemed offensive or “ugly” by the networks. In light of his actions, CNN said that it would not reveal his identity — for now. The clear message was that CNN reserved that right to disclose the man’s identity if he resumed posting material deemed ugly by the network. Many of us objected to CNN’s language and rationale as inimical to journalistic standards and free speech. CNN analyst Kirsten Powers insisted that such concerns are groundless and that CNN acted entirely appropriately. She specifically responded to my column in USA Today raising these concerns. Both Powers and I are contributors to USA Today.
Before responding to Powers’ arguments, it is important to repeat what CNN actually said (and later what I actually said):
“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.”
Many of us saw that statement as high-handed, judgmental, and threatening. CNN clearly stated that it was not releasing the man’s identity because he had shown sufficient remorse and promised that “he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again.” CNN further says that it has not published his name because his apology “could serve as an example to others not to do the same.” It then reserves the right to disclose his name “should any of that change.”
All of that seems quite unambiguous and clearly inappropriate. It is hard to know where to start. The news story dealt with a videotape snatched out of obscurity by the President. Yet, CNN ties its decision to the poster stripping a variety of postings deemed ugly. More importantly, it clearly says that it based its actions on its satisfaction with the removal of the material and that fact that this would be a warning to others “not to do the same.” The “same” what? Posting things deemed “ugly” or insulting to the media or just insulting to CNN? If CNN is going to get into the business of withholding names based on its desire to send messages or force redemptive conduct, it should at least be clear. Finally, CNN did not simply say that it might release the man’s name if it became news. It said it could release it “should any of that change.” The “that” was his showing remorse, stripping postings deemed “ugly”, and serving as an example to others.
Powers does not address any of that language, but she does repeatedly state that I accused CNN of “being a ‘censor.'” In reality, I said that CNN was “behaving like a media censor.” (The title selected by USA Today also referred to “censor” but, as Powers must know, we do not pick our titles as columnists). There is a difference. I would never call CNN an actual censor because it did not directly remove material or even had the authority to do so. The column stated that this type of threat created a chilling effect on speech and used CNN’s position as a media organization to shape or deter speech.
While Powers insists that “there are consequences to our speech,” she fails to mention that I stated repeatedly that CNN would have been within its right to publish the name as news. What it did not have the right to do is to use the threat of publishing news to create a type of probationary status for a citizen. One can easily debate the culpability of this Reddit poster who merely mocked CNN – a video that took on a more sinister meaning with the President’s reposting.
Powers’ column reveals the very relativistic view that prompted my column. She generously states that anonymity has a place in free speech and “We don’t want to discourage that.” Of course, you can hear the “but” coming down the railroad tracks after a comment like that:
“But in a mature society, we should be able to distinguish the person trying to be a participant in the political system from a person who uses their anonymity to viciously target and attack people based on their race or religion.”
That sounds a lot like CNN’s “mature” view that we will not “out” you unless you write something we deem offensive. My view, stated in the earlier column, is that the man’s identity became news when his work was re-posted. His video was a fairly typical satire from on the left and the right on Reddit. Trump made him news. However, in my view, CNN should publish his name solely on the basis of whether it is news — not his promise to reform and his continued good behavior. If his name is not news today, what does it matter if he uses his anonymity to post objectionable or even hateful views? Will Powers and CNN apply the same standard to the millions of others posting such views, including some with high rates of “likes” or repostings?
Moreover, Powers refers to attacks based on race or religion. However, the notoriety of this man was a videotape that had a clear political content. CNN then proclaimed that the man had removed a variety things that it deemed “ugly.” Either the man’s other postings were news or it was not. CNN has no license to leverage news coverage based on changes in conduct by critics.
Yet, Powers insists that such leverage should be used based solely on whether it would work – not whether it changes the role of a news organization. Powers says that if she ran a company and felt that a poster was trying “to incite anti-Semitic rancor,” she could threaten the poster to “cease and desist from this kind of behavior.” She added “If releasing their identity was my only leverage, I would use it.” That certainly makes all of this simpler as a matter of journalistic ethics. It is merely about whether it would work. It is the ends not the means that is the focus of the analysis.
Of course, this is the worst form of consequentialism and, in my view, the very antithesis of ethics in justifying the means by the ends of one’s actions. Journalism is all about the means in how and why you report stories. Principles require you to do something that may not be to your advantage. If CNN declared that the man’s name was not news, there would have been no controversy. Likewise, if it declared that the news value did not out weigh the possible harm that could befall the man, most of us would have undersood and even supported the decision. Instead, CNN listed a serious of actions and said that it wanted this to be a lesson to others. It then said that it would reserve publication based on future good behavior.
Notably, CNN has not followed the recommended course of Powers who not only wanted the name released, but seems to take the view that all is fair in dealing with posters deemed offensive or vicious. What is missing in such an approach is principle. That is the one thing a news organization cannot do without.