With President Trump’s consistent focus on “fake news,” it’s easy to forget that the term was originally popularized by members of the mainstream media attempting to explain away Hillary Clinton’s loss by blaming the dissemination of false stories. But if that was the media’s concern, they could have begun by looking in-house — it turns out that the media have been responsible for a bevy of fake stories targeting the right for decades on end (see Rather, Dan). The latest example: CNN absolutely botched a story claiming that President Trump knew in advance about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between members of the Trump campaign and a Russian-backed lawyer supposedly offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
It turns out that a CNN story from July 26, 2018 claiming just that was supplied by Lanny Davis, the Clinton-associated lawyer for Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal fixer — a man who just flipped on Trump to the FBI, implicating Trump in campaign finance violations. CNN says it stands by the story. Davis, however, told The Washington Post this week, “I should have been more clear — including with you — that I could not independently confirm what happened. I regret my error.” Davis then told Anderson Cooper, “I think the reporting of the story got mixed up in the course of a criminal investigation. We were not the source of the story.” The CNN story originally said Davis offered no comment. CNN, however, said, “We stand by our story, and are confident in our reporting of it.”
CNN’s original story rocketed around the media, with “confirming” stories following from NBC News and The Washington Post, among others. According to BuzzFeed News, Davis was the confirming source for all of that.
These admissions follow another from Davis regarding a claim that Trump knew beforehand about the hacking of Democratic emails by the Russians. “I am not sure,” Davis now says. “There’s a possibility that is the case. But I am not sure.”
All of which should call into serious question Davis’ credibility. And CNN’s, if they don’t have any additional information. According to BuzzFeed News:
The network, in effect, doesn’t appear to believe it made a mistake — the story was, some inside CNN argue, carefully worded to hedge against those in the Cohen camp changing their tune. In other words, the story reports claims that Cohen had said he was willing to make, not the underlying truth of those claims.
The decision from CNN to continue to stand by the story suggests that it believes the strength of its other sources outweighs any waffling from Davis — or that the network believes Davis was telling the truth then, and not now. But Davis’s new statement that he was a source for a story he now refutes raises questions about what action, if any, the network might take.
“We should address Lanny Davis’s comments in our reporting and be more transparent with our readers about our reporting,” one CNN staffer told BuzzFeed News.
As someone who has personally made this mistake, it’s important to note that caveating information doesn’t inure you to blowback. While CNN’s story may still be technically true, those aren’t the rules of the game anymore: rumors mustn’t be reported, even if the reporting of the rumors is accurate. So if Davis was trafficking in rumors and CNN printed them, that’s their fault. And by the media’s own standards, that means CNN is pushing fake news.