White House press feud erupts over ‘fake news’

CNN stirs claims of bias against Trump

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

The White House dou­bled down on the “fake news” nar­ra­tive last Tues­day in re­sponse to fresh ac­cu­sa­tions of bias at CNN as ten­sions be­tween the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and es­tab­lish­ment press hit what may be an all-time high.

White House spokes­woman Sarah Huck­abee San­ders had an ex­plo­sive ex­change with a re­porter dur­ing an on-cam­era press brief­ing af­ter she de­cried “the ex­plo­sive bar­rage of fake news di­rected at this pres­i­dent.”

She pointed to the re­lease of an un­der­cover video by Project Ver­i­tas show­ing a CNN su­per­vis­ing pro­ducer ad­mit­ting that the net­work had pushed the “bullsh--” Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling in or­der to juice rat­ings.

“I think if it is ac­cu­rate, I think it’s a dis­grace to all of me­dia, to all of jour­nal­ism,” said Mrs. San­ders. “I think that we have gone to a place where if the me­dia can’t be trusted to re­port the news, then that’s a dan­ger­ous place for Amer­ica.”

Push­ing back was Mont­gomery County [Mary­land] Sen­tinel Ex­ec­u­tive Edi­tor Brian Karem, who ac­cused Mrs. San­ders of “in­flam­ing every­body” by den­i­grat­ing jour­nal­ists who are only try­ing to do their job, which she de­nied.

“First of all, I think if any­thing has been in­flamed, it’s the dis­hon­esty that of­ten takes place by the news me­dia,” said Mrs. San­ders. “And I think it is out­ra­geous for you to ac­cuse me of in­flam­ing a story when I was sim­ply try­ing to re­spond to [a re­porter’s] ques­tion.”

CNN’s Jim Acosta later took to Twit­ter to crit­i­cize the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion press shop, in part for tak­ing a ques­tion from the Bre­it­bart news net­work.

“Does this feel like Amer­ica? Where the White House takes q’s from con­ser­va­tives, then openly trashes the news me­dia in the brief­ing room,” Mr. Acosta said on Twit­ter.

The open feud­ing erupted af­ter backto-back con­tro­ver­sies in­volv­ing CNN prompted ac­cu­sa­tions of me­dia bias against a net­work al­ready blamed for hav­ing its thumb on the scale for the anti-Trump op­po­si­tion.

For CNN, the tim­ing of the Project Ver­i­tas re­lease could not have been worse. Last Mon­day, the net­work said three staffers re­signed over a now-re­tracted story link­ing a Trump tran­si­tion team mem­ber to the Se­nate in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence. Ac­cord­ing to the New York Post, the three were fired amid law­suit threats.

CNN deleted the story and apol­o­gized to the Trump ally, fi­nancier An­thony Scara­mucci, who com­mended the net­work for do­ing the right thing.

Buz­zFeed posted an in­ter­nal CNN memo dated lay­ing out stricter rules on its Rus­sia cov­er­age from CNNMoney Ex­ec­u­tive Edi­tor Rich Bar­bieri, who told staffers not to pub­lish “any con­tent in­volv­ing Rus­sia” with­out check­ing with him or an­other edi­tor first.

Then came the hid­den-cam­era footage fea­tur­ing CNN pro­ducer John Boni­field, who de­scribed the Rus­sia cov­er­age as “mostly bullsh--” and ad­mit­ting that Mr. Trump was “prob­a­bly right to say, look, you are witch-hunt­ing me. You have no smok­ing gun, you have no real proof.”

Asked in the tape why CNN had pushed the story about Rus­sian elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence, Mr. Boni­field replied, “Be­cause it’s rat­ings. Our rat­ings are in­cred­i­ble right now.”

Mr. Trump promptly took to Twit­ter to blast CNN, say­ing the Project Ver­i­tas video “caught Fake News CNN cold.”

Don­ald Trump Jr. urged peo­ple in a tweet to watch the footage, say­ing CNN’s claims of be­ing “real news” are “ob­vi­ously a lie.”

The net­work re­sponded by mov­ing to dis­tance Mr. Boni­field from its po­lit­i­cal cov­er­age. It de­scribed him as a med­i­cal pro­ducer and said his views il­lus­trate the net­work’s di­ver­sity.

“CNN stands by our med­i­cal pro­ducer John Boni­field,” said the state­ment. “Di­ver­sity of per­sonal opin­ion is what makes CNN strong, we wel­come it and em­brace it.”

Tom Bet­tag, a vis­it­ing fel­low at the Univer­sity of Mary­land Philip Mer­rill Col­lege of Jour­nal­ism, said news out­lets need to be care­ful to ex­am­ine the mo­ti­va­tions be­hind their cov­er­age.

“I think there’s a real danger and that peo­ple have to look at them­selves very care­fully and say, ‘Are we be­ing driven by the rat­ings, which clearly have been good be­cause of that, or is this hon­est jour­nal­ism?’” said Mr. Bet­tag, who spent 14 years as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for ABC News’ “Night­line.”

CNN has been hardly alone in its fo­cus on Rus­sia. A study re­leased by the Me­dia Re­search Cen­ter found that the cov­er­age of the Rus­sia probe in­volv­ing for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey rep­re­sented 55 per­cent of the news sto­ries from May 17 to June 20 aired by ABC, CBS and NBC.

Even so, Mr. Bet­tag said, the three ma­jor net­works haven’t en­joyed the same rat­ings bump as have ca­ble net­works such as CNN and MSNBC.

On the video, Mr. Boni­field said the em­pha­sis on Rus­sia came from the top. He re­layed that his “boss” told him that CNN World­wide CEO Jeff Zucker had di­rected the net­work to “get back to Rus­sia” af­ter its cov­er­age of the Paris cli­mate agree­ment.

“So even with the cli­mate ac­cords, he was like, OK, a day or so, but we’re mov­ing back to Rus­sia,” Mr. Boni­field said.

If the goal was to im­prove rat­ings, CNN was suc­cess­ful. Even though Mr. Trump said on Twit­ter that CNN’s rat­ings are “way down,” the net­work coun­tered by point­ing to its record-break­ing sec­ond-quar­ter view­er­ship.

Project Ver­i­tas re­sponded that “of course rat­ings are high” and ac­cused Mr. Zucker of push­ing the Rus­sia nar­ra­tive to at­tract view­ers.

“They’re feed­ing their au­di­ence a false nar­ra­tive in or­der to get rat­ings,” said Project Ver­i­tas Pres­i­dent James O’Keefe.

Mr. Boni­field, iden­ti­fied as a 15-year CNN em­ployee, also re­ferred to a dou­ble stan­dard with the net­work’s cov­er­age of Mr. Trump ver­sus Pres­i­dent Obama.

“I think there are a lot of lib­eral CNN view­ers who want to see Trump re­ally get scru­ti­nized,” Mr. Boni­field said on the hid­den-cam­era video.

“And I think if we would have be­haved that way with Pres­i­dent Obama, and scru­ti­nized ev­ery­thing that he was do­ing with as much scru­tiny as we ap­plied to Don­ald Trump, I think our view­ers would have been turned off,” he said. “I think they would have felt like we were at­tack­ing him.”


White House spokes­woman Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said a CNN ad­mis­sion of push­ing a story on Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling is “a dis­grace to all of me­dia, to all of jour­nal­ism.”

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