Below is my column in USA Today on the controversy surrounding CNN’s handling of the creator of the Trump wrestling video. The episode shows the deepening tension between CNN and Trump. CNN has increasingly positioned itself as part of the “resistance” while Trump has used CNN as embodiment of all that is wrong with the media. While Trump has said that CNN has done itself serious damage in the controversy, polls show almost 60 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s performance as President. While ratings have been up and more people trust CNN rather than Trump, CNN’s journalistic image has been damaged in the relentless anti-Trump rhetoric from both political and legal contributors. Even under the recent poll, some 43 percent trust Trump more and CNN’s ratings continue to roller coaster. Ironically, CNN needs Trump and Trump needs CNN to continue their respective narratives. However, neither is a promising foundation for either a political or journalistic enterprise. It is a case of mutually assured destruction.
Here is the column:
CNN has reported that it has confirmed the identity of the creator of the controversial video that shows President Trump taking down someone with the CNN logo for a head. Like many, I was highly critical of the president for reposting the video on his Twitter account. That was both irresponsible and unpresidential.
What is curious is that CNN has withheld the creator’s identity while making a thinly veiled threat that it will release his name if he posts anything CNN finds disturbing or offensive. That is an odd role for a news organization. The news media do not usually put citizens on probation for exercising their free speech.
CNN announced that it had identified the Reddit user “HanA**holeSolo” who first shared the video that Trump reposted with the hashtags #FraudNewsCNN and #FNN. CNN said the man also posted images with racist and anti-Semitic imagery. He issued a long apology and removed all of the images.
“I am not the person that the media portrays me to be in real life. I was trolling and posting things to get a reaction from the subs on Reddit and never meant any of the hateful things I said in those posts,” he wrote. He said he was engaging in what he thought was satire or trolling fun on Reddit.
Like the poster, I am a fan of Reddit, which is known for its open forum and varied viewpoints. It is often caustic and funny. At times, it is offensive and disturbing. However, it is a genuine and largely uninhibited forum for free expression.
The Trump video by the Reddit user was a typical satire on contemporary political events. It is not even clear whether it was meant as a celebration or a criticism of Trump. It simply swapped out the face of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) CEO Vince McMahon with the CNN gif.
It was the exercise of free speech. It was also news. While posting such a video on Reddit is not surprising or noteworthy, it took on an entirely new character when Trump reposted it. He has waged an intense war against the news media and CNN in particular. That makes the original poster’s identity newsworthy.
CNN, however, stated that it has decided to withhold his name … for now. He is a private citizen, the network said, who apologized, took down the offending posts and said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media. 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.”
The last statement is particularly jarring. It sounds like CNN is putting a citizen on a type of media probationary status — threatening to reveal his name if it deems any posting as constituting “ugly behavior.” It puts a news organization in the position of monitoring free speech and deciding whether to ruin someone if he crosses some ill-defined line with CNN. It is the antithesis of what a news organization is supposed to be about.
If the man’s name is news, CNN can choose to publish it or not publish it. In reality, he is news only because his videotape was snatched from obscurity and paraded to the world by the president of the United States. It is the Internet equivalent of being hit by lightning. If the man posts an anti-media comment or gif, will CNN then declare it news and post his name? It is not clear how long this probationary period will run, let alone the standard for distinguishing between free speech and ugly speech.
Nor is there a clear rationale behind a media probationary status. Journalists will often withhold the names of sexual assault victims or minors. However, they don’t threaten to reveal those names if they fall to meet the news organizations’ expectations or standards in future conduct. Indeed, even when juries reject sexual assault claims, CNN continues to protect the names.
In this case, CNN is behaving like a media censor. The president arbitrarily selected this man and his gif. Now CNN appears willing to arbitrarily punish him.
It is the threat of future disclosure that is so concerning and dangerous. News is not supposed to be a weapon to be brandished to induce good conduct by organizations like CNN. Free speech and free press go hand in hand. Indeed, many reporters are protected more under the former right than the latter in legal controversies. Once a news organization becomes the manager of free speech, it becomes a menace to the free press.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.