The first ad in CNN’s “Facts First” initiative features nothing but an apple with a voiceover lecturing you about the need to embrace facts. “This is an apple,” an amiable man tells us. “Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana. They might scream banana, banana, banana, over and over and over again. They might put BANANA in all caps. You might even start to believe that this is a banana. But it’s not. This is an apple.”
This reflects the smug and didactic disposition of many in a political media that treats a vocation as if it were a religious crusade. Considering the numerous mistakes and misleading stories CNN has produced over the past several years, you’d think that they’d be a tad less sanctimonious.
For one thing, there will always be people ready to believe fake news and conspiracy theories that buttress their worldview. This is not unique to any outlook or era. In 2006, 51 percent of Democrats believed President George W. Bush knew of or abetted the 9/11 attacks. In 2010, 41 percent of Republicans, including Donald Trump, believed Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. These days, 52 percent of Democrats believe Russia “tampered with the vote totals” and made Trump president. (I guess CNN has something to do with the latter, considering that on more than occasion it has made the misleading sensationalistic claim that Russia “hacked the election.”)
But you know what can be just as dangerous as fake news? Bad stories perpetuated by big institutional news organizations that have become too biased to notice.
“Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana.” #FactsFirst pic.twitter.com/LbmRKiGJe9
— CNN (@CNN) October 23, 2017
We’re not talking about Candy Crowley arguing with Mitt Romney during a presidential debate, and misleading millions of voters by mangling the facts. We’re not even talking about transparently partisan reporters like Jim Sciutto or Jim Acosta. We’re talking about CNN political analysts like Julian Zelizer, who claimed this summer that President Trump never made an Article 5 commitment to our NATO allies a month after Trump did. Rather than correcting what may have been an oversight (if we give him the benefit of the doubt), Zelizer rationalized his definitive assertion by alleging that “POTUS has sent mixed messages and there is reason to question his commitment.”
Trump said: “I am committing the United States to Article 5.” Even if you don’t trust the president, a banana is not an apple.
We’re talking about CNN host Chris Cuomo, who, in addition to his hopeless bias, regularly offers factually impaired assertions on every media platform available to him. During the presidential race, Cuomo argued that while it was “illegal” for citizens to look at WikiLeaks emails, the media was afforded special protection with illegally obtained documents. “It’s different for the media,” Cuomo explained, “So everything you learn about this, you’re learning from us.”
You might also remember that after an anti-Islamist was shot in Texas a few years ago, Cuomo, who has a law degree, did a bit of victim-blaming by arguing that “Hate speech is excluded from protection” under the First Amendment. Instead of admitting that his aversion to speech critical of Islam had led him to say something untrue, Cuomo attempted to walk it back by offering examples that had absolutely nothing to do with his initial comment.
We’re talking about Sally Kohn and her cohosts, who raise their hands in the air in a nod to the “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan. Political commentators are free to engage in political theater, of course, but if we call out Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow when they perpetuate political myths, why not CNN, which fashions itself somewhere in the middle of Fox and MSNBC? CNN didn’t instruct its talent to stick to facts, it pushed the video out on its social media channels. Yet nothing in the Michael Brown case, not the ballistic or the DNA evidence or the witness statements, backs up the contention that Brown was shot with his hands up. Apples are not bananas no matter how many times you scream.
We’re talking about CNN contributors who are tagged as experts but don’t understand even the rudimentary working of the topic they’re tasked with explaining.
This is a semi-automatic gun. Some people might try to tell you it’s a machine gun. Other people might even tell you “It’s legal, it’s legal, it’s legal,” over and over and over again. It might even say so in the chyron. You might even start to believe that people are walking around with fully automatic guns. But they’re not. No matter how many times CNN anchors or contributors or stories make the claim.
A “banana” is when CNN features a picture of an AR-15 with a suppressor (extraordinarily difficult to obtain since it is heavily regulated through the National Firearms Act) and a grenade launcher (also heavily regulated; and civilians can’t purchase grenades) when you’re talking about bump stocks.
A banana is when you run conspiracy-mongering pieces that assert Republicans want to make rape and domestic violence pre-existing conditions in their Obamacare repeal bill when there is not a single word or action that backs up the allegation. CNN not only reported this, it went out and spoke to survivors of rape so they could react to the fabrication. The only difference between this story and some random fake news piece on social media is that CNN has the budget to run ads telling me to trust it.
This kind of activist journalism corrodes public trust. The same kind of corrosion occurs when stories are wholly based on anonymous sources — which is all the time, for a year now. Quite often readers and listeners rightly assume that journalists are merely doing the bidding of these people.
A raft of long-forgotten histrionic post-election pieces that drove coverage on the network turned out to be false. Sometimes CNN gets caught. And sometimes they take responsibility and retract an entire story linking an ally of Trump to a Russian bank. Other times, they are caught and pretend to take responsibility.
Before his dramatic congressional testimony, which many hoped would feature a smoking gun on Russian collusion or presidential abuse of power, CNN spent hours pushing a four-byline story that alleged James Comey would publicly dispute the president’s claim that the former FBI director told him on three occasions that he was not under investigation.
Comey did the opposite. Instead of withdrawing or correcting this story (even though they claimed to have made a “correction”), CNN inserted a paragraph maintaining that “Comey does not directly dispute that Trump was told multiple times he was not under investigation.” It is true that Comey did not directly dispute CNN by name, he just happened to unambiguously say the opposite of what CNN claimed he would.
There’s plenty of good work being done at CNN. But the network, like many others in the media, has conflated its opposition to Trump with a reverence for truth and “facts.” The president’s lies don’t excuse CNN’s advocacy, which often leads them to offer misleading stories. In many ways, in fact, their crusade helps president attack the media’s credibility.