Threatening an anonymous critic with exposure seems more like corporate bullying and censorship than journalism.
A controversy erupted late Tuesday night after CNN published an article announcing that it had uncovered the identity of the anonymous Reddit user who created the video of President Donald Trump punching a CNN logo. CNN and other outlets had previously reported that this user, who uses a pseudonym, had also posted anti-Semitic and racist content on Reddit, including an image identifying all of the Jewish employees of CNN, designated with a Jewish star next to their photos.
Though CNN decided — for now — not to reveal his name, the network made clear that this discretion was predicated on the user’s lengthy public apology, his promise not to repeat the behavior, and his status as a private citizen. But in its article, the network explicitly threatened that it could change its mind about withholding the user’s real name if his behavior changes in the future:
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.
Several of the objections made to CNN’s conduct here appear to be false. That includes the claim by the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. that the user threatened by CNN is 15 years old (the CNN reporter, Andrew Kaczynski, said the Reddit user is an adult). The claim that CNN “blackmailed” the user into apologizing — expressed by a Twitter hashtag, #CNNBlackmail, that still sits at the top of trending topics on the site — seems dubious at best, since there is no evidence the user spoke to CNN before posting his apology (though CNN itself says it contacted the user the day before he posted his apology, which presumably means he knew CNN had found out his name when he posted it).
But the invalidity of those particular accusations does not exonerate CNN. There is something self-evidently creepy, bullying, and heavy-handed about a large news organization publicly announcing that it will expose someone’s identity if he ever again publishes content on the internet that the network deems inappropriate or objectionable. Whether it was CNN’s intent or not, the article makes it appear as if CNN will be monitoring this citizen’s online writing, and will punish him with exposure if he writes something the network dislikes.
There is also something untoward about the fact that CNN — the subject of the original video — was the news outlet that uncovered his identity. That fact creates the appearance of vengeance: If you, even as a random and anonymous internet user, post content critical of CNN, then it will use its vast corporate resources to investigate you, uncover your identity, and threaten to expose you if you ever do so again.
The reality here is likely more complicated. The most offensive passage here — “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change” — sounds like classic lawyer language that executives or corporate lawyers would demand be included. It does not sound like something a typical journalist would write on their own. (CNN did not respond to The Intercept’s inquiries about who inserted this language or what future behavior on the part of the user might trigger CNN’s threat to expose him; we will update this article if any response is received.)
And CNN’s role in discovering this user’s identity is likely more a byproduct of Kaczynski’s well-established internet-sleuthing skills than a corporate decision to target a critic. Indeed, the decision to withhold the person’s name — had it been made without the threat to expose it in the future — could arguably be heralded as a commendable case of journalistic restraint.
In response to the controversy last night, Kaczynski argued that “this line is being misinterpreted. It was intended only to mean we made no agreement [with] the man about his identity.” That may have been CNN’s intent, but that is not what the sentence says.
Whatever the intent, this is a case where one of the nation’s most powerful media corporations is explicitly threatening a critic with exposure should he publish material that the network deems — based on its own secret standards — to be worthy of punishment. And the threat comes in the wake of his groveling public apology, posted less than a day after he learned CNN had discovered his identity.
There is also a real question about whether a news organization — when deciding what information is newsworthy — should take into account factors such as whether someone is remorseful for what they said and whether they promise not to express similar views in the future. Those considerations seem to be the province of those vested with the power to punish bad behavior — a parent, a police officer, or a judge — rather than a news outlet. All of this has a strong whiff of CNN deciding who is a good boy and who is a bad boy based on the content of their views, and doling out journalistic punishments and rewards accordingly.
Moreover, if this person’s name is newsworthy — on the ground that racists or others who post inflammatory content should be publicly exposed and vilified — does it matter if he expressed what CNN executives regard as sufficient remorse? And if his name is not newsworthy, then why should CNN be threatening to reveal it in the event that he makes future utterances that the network dislikes?
If you’re someone who believes that media corporations should expose the identity even of random, anonymous internet users who express anti-Semitic or racist views, then you should be prepared to identify the full list of views that merit similar treatment. Should anyone who supports Trump have their identity exposed? Those who oppose marriage equality? Those with views deemed sexist? Those who advocate communism? Are you comfortable with having corporate media executives decide which views merit public exposure?
Whatever else is true, CNN is a massive media corporation that is owned by an even larger corporation. It has virtually unlimited resources. We should cheer when those resources are brought to bear to investigate those who exercise great political and economic power. But when they are used to threaten and punish a random, obscure citizen who has criticized the network — no matter how objectionable his views might be — it resembles corporate bullying and creepy censorship more than actual journalism.
UPDATE: CNN just issued a statement in response to the controversy its article provoked:
All of these claims are already included in this article, but note two key points: 1) While the Reddit user’s apology was posted before he spoke to any CNN reporter, he posted it after he was contacted by CNN, which means he knew when he publicly apologized that the network had unearthed his identity; and, more importantly, 2) CNN’s claim that it merely meant to convey “that there was no deal” is squarely at odds with what its article actually warned: “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”
That sentence — which can only be read as a threat to reveal his name should he post more offending material in the future — is what has triggered the anger at CNN, and the network’s statement does not address that at all. Finally, CNN apparently refuses to say whether this threatening language was included by its reporter (who has borne the brunt of the public anger) or by its lawyers and executives demanding that it be included.