At CNN, Retracted Story Leaves an Elite Reporting Team Bruised

At CNN, Retracted Story Leaves an Elite Reporting Team Bruised

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Questions linger about the way CNN handled the publication of the story and the retraction. The network’s swift and severe response drew coverage throughout the media world, and prompted some journalists to question whether CNN had bowed to political pressure and overreacted on a story it has never explicitly said was wrong. Instead, the network maintains there had been unacceptable breakdowns in the newsroom’s internal review process.

In interviews with The New York Times, more than half a dozen CNN staff members, including three with direct knowledge of the investigative unit’s operations, provided previously unreported details about the publication of the story and the fallout from its retraction. Citing fear of retribution, the people requested anonymity to discuss sensitive internal information.

In the weeks since the story was retracted, the investigative team has been reshaped and redirected. Its members were told they should not report on perhaps the most compelling political story of the year: potential ties between the Trump administration and Russia. That subject is now largely handled by CNN’s reporting team in Washington. The political whizzes of KFile, a group of Internet-savvy reporters poached from BuzzFeed that was untainted by the retraction, were transferred out of the investigative team.

The remaining team members have resumed publishing, but with a narrower reporting scope; they now focus on topics less glamorous than Mr. Trump’s potential ties to Russia, like the opioid crisis and the environment.

Created to enhance CNN’s brand, the group had instead left it bruised, and the mistakes intensified the onslaught of attacks against CNN from Mr. Trump. Looming over the newsroom was a pending $85 billion takeover of CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, by AT&T, a deal requiring Justice Department approval that some White House aides considered a potential form of leverage against the network and its president, Jeffrey A. Zucker.

CNN said its commitment to aggressive reporting remains undiminished, and other anchors and correspondents have continued to break stories about the Trump administration and Russia. Late last month the network revealed an email from a Trump campaign aide discussing a potential meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, during last year’s presidential race.

“For 37 years, CNN has done award winning investigative work that has led to fundamental changes at some of the country’s most important institutions,” CNN said in a statement. “This year, CNN has gone even further, devoting additional time, talent and resources to an expanded investigative team. While there have been lessons learned along the way, one thing has remained constant — our unwavering commitment to this type of work at a time when it has never been more important.”

Jeffrey A. Zucker, the president of CNN, has reaffirmed the network’s commitment to investigative journalism, despite the retraction.

Credit
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Turner

Journalistic Glitterati

In a memo introducing the new unit in January, Andrew Morse, an executive vice president at CNN, trumpeted an expansion that he said would “supercharge” the network’s commitment to investigative journalism.

The memo envisioned a robust team of more than 25 reporters and producers that would include new hires and star correspondents gathered from other parts of the network, including Sara Ganim, a Pulitzer Prize winner for her coverage of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal.

Mr. Zucker courted A-list journalists to join the team; in April, CNN scored a coup, hiring Eric Lichtblau, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from The New York Times.

Members of the unit initially expected to have plenty of time to report on a wide variety of stories. But, increasingly, CNN journalists said, the team was pulled into day-to-day political developments in Washington, especially the Trump campaign’s potential connections to Russia; at times, it resembled more of a rapid-response team. At the same time, the pressure to produce scoops increased.

It was in that heated environment that the first major public lapse involving the team occurred.

In early June, CNN published a bulletin saying that James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, would contradict Mr. Trump in testimony before Congress, disputing the president’s assertion that Mr. Comey had informed him three times that he was not under investigation.

The article ran under the bylines of Mr. Lichtblau; the anchors Jake Tapper and Gloria Borger; and a producer, Brian Rokus. Ms. Borger relayed the news to viewers on-air.

But the network soon began hearing from sources who said the information in the article was wrong. CNN was forced to issue a correction.

In the newsroom, some colleagues of Mr. Lichtblau, who had only recently joined the network, blamed him for the mistake; others defended him. It was a sign of the tension that already existed between CNN’s Washington bureau and the upstart investigative unit, which were jousting over the various reporting lines of the Trump-Russia story, two people said. The botched Comey story only exacerbated it.

The mistake also drew the ire of Mr. Zucker, who told his journalists that the political climate — with CNN in Mr. Trump’s cross hairs — left no room for error.

It was in this strained environment that, less than three weeks later, the investigative unit found itself at the center of a more consequential blunder.

A Flawed Process

On June 22, a modest, 950-word story appeared on CNN’s website, reporting that a Trump adviser named Anthony Scaramucci — at the time not yet a household name — had ties to a Russian investment fund that had attracted the attention of investigators in the United States Senate.

Anthony Scaramucci said that tangling with CNN had helped him get his short-lived position as the White House communications director.

Credit
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

The story said that the Senate Intelligence Committee was examining the fund and that Mr. Scaramucci had met with the head of the fund, Kirill Dmitriev, several days before Mr. Trump’s inauguration. It also said the Treasury Department had been looking into the meeting at the request of two Democratic senators, who had expressed concern that Mr. Scaramucci might have promised to help get sanctions against Russia waived by the new administration.

The story was written by Thomas Frank, who had been a Pulitzer Prize finalist at USA Today. But Mr. Scaramucci, who was jockeying for a position in the White House, disputed the information when CNN contacted him for comment, according to a person close to Mr. Scaramucci; the story quoted Mr. Scaramucci as saying “there is nothing there,” in reference to his meeting with Mr. Dmitriev.

Mr. Lichtblau was editing the article and, according to the people with direct knowledge of the events, he sent a draft of the story to Lex Haris, the head of the investigative unit. Mr. Haris, who was traveling to Phoenix for a conference, signed off — as long as the story passed muster with CNN’s internal review system, known as the Triad.

The Triad includes CNN’s fact-checkers and its standards team, both of which approved the article. But the third prong, the legal department, had at least one question that went unanswered.

It is not clear what specific concerns the legal department raised, or why Mr. Lichtblau and Mr. Haris did not address them; journalists at CNN said it was sometimes difficult to keep track of the flurry of inquiries that could come during the review process. (Mr. Frank, Mr. Haris and Mr. Lichtblau declined to comment for this story.)

Mr. Lichtblau moved forward with publication. He emailed an editor affiliated with KFile, Kyle Blaine, who had not been involved in the story, and instructed him to publish it on his behalf.

When the story was posted that afternoon, it received little attention — inside the newsroom and out. But Mr. Scaramucci and his representatives quickly contacted CNN officials, including the network’s Washington bureau chief, Sam Feist, to complain. It was an “all hands on deck’’ rebuttal, said the person familiar with Mr. Scaramucci’s response.

Breitbart News, a frequent critic of CNN, soon posted an item that questioned CNN’s reporting, and called the network’s story “very fake news.’’ Citing its own source, Breitbart said there was no Senate investigation.

When CNN managers began to review the piece, they discovered the legal department’s concerns — and that they had not been addressed. They also realized a factual error had slipped through the fact-checking process; it was a technicality related to a Russian bank’s relationship to the fund, but managers found it to have been a troubling lapse.

And there was a more problematic issue, two people familiar with the review said.

Mr. Frank’s single source had wavered before the story was published, expressing concern about how the information was being presented. But Mr. Frank had not relayed that hesitancy to his colleagues.

Between Mr. Frank’s wavering source and the discovery of breakdowns in the editorial vetting process, executives concluded that the network could not stand behind the story. The day after the article was published, CNN removed it from its website and issued a formal retraction and an apology to Mr. Scaramucci.

“That story did not meet CNN’s editorial standards,” the network wrote.

It is still unclear to what degree the story was inaccurate. CNN has never said that the article’s reporting was incorrect, and Mr. Zucker made clear on a morning conference call, soon after the retraction, that the network would not go back and report the story again.

Some journalists inside and outside the network said privately that they believed the story was materially true. But the story also suffered from a lack of clarity. A reader could easily come away with the impression that Mr. Scaramucci himself was under investigation for some kind of illicit dealings with the Russians — an assertion that the article does not explicitly make.

Significant Consequences

The fallout came quickly. The day after the retraction, Rich Barbieri, the editor of CNN’s business and finance site, sent his team an email barring the publication of “any content involving Russia” without editorial approval — “no exceptions.”

As Breitbart News and other CNN critics gloated over the retraction, Mr. Zucker decided that stern action was necessary to demonstrate to its employees — and to the outside world — that the network would not tolerate such mistakes. The network asked Mr. Lichtblau, Mr. Haris and Mr. Frank to resign.

Eric Lichtblau won a Pulitzer Prize at The New York Times before joining CNN. Mr. Lichtblau was the editor on the retracted story.

Credit
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

The episode shocked many inside CNN and created anxiety in the newsroom. Some staff members said they thought the punishment had been overly harsh, a view expressed by some media commentators as well.

Though corrections are not uncommon for news organizations, full retractions are more unusual and typically signify major factual errors or ethical breaches. When news organizations do retract a story, they normally also make an effort to correct the record, and explain to the reader what went wrong. But the brief editor’s note from CNN, some journalism experts said, provided more questions than answers.

“CNN failed in its duty to enlighten the public,” said Edward Wasserman, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. “Instead, it muddied the waters to correct something and we don’t know what it’s correcting.”

Mr. Trump quickly seized on the resignations. He posted on Twitter the next morning, “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!’’

At CNN, executives took some time to regroup. Mr. Zucker vowed that the network would not be cowed by the Trump administration. After a reassessment period, CNN asked the investigative unit to resume its work. Its ranks have been replenished: new journalists have been brought on from other parts of CNN, and there is a new team leader in place, Matt Lait, a veteran former editor at The Los Angeles Times.

On Aug. 2, weeks after he informed the investigative team of the resignations, Mr. Burke, the CNN executive, convened another meeting — this time to outline the unit’s refocused mission. The team would engage in longer-term reporting on national issues, with less focus on the White House. He affirmed that the unit should leave the Russia investigation story to CNN’s staff in Washington.

Mr. Scaramucci, meanwhile, had been named Mr. Trump’s communications director. His successful tangling with CNN was said to have greatly pleased the president. Before Mr. Scaramucci was himself forced out of the White House, he was overheard on a live television microphone referring to the retracted story and Mr. Zucker.

“He helped me get the job by hitting those guys,” Mr. Scaramucci said, referring to the resignations. He added, “Tell him he’s not getting a placement fee for getting me the job.”

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