On Sunday, July 2, President Trump tweeted out a meme of himself wrestling WWE Chairman Vince McMahon with the CNN logo over his face. That same day, CNN’s Brian Stelter took to his show Reliable Sources where he and his panel of liberal reporters decried Trump as “dangerous” and a “fascists.” A full week later, Stelter and another stacked panel of journalists were defending CNN’s legally questionable tactics of tracking down the meme creator and threating to reveal his identity. In addition to that, they slammed the outlet’s critics and conflated them with those sending threats of violence to journalists.
Before getting to talking about the memes and CNN’s underhanded methods, they spent a time talking about the very real and disgusting threats of violence against journalists. The way the topics were blended together only served to conflate the real issue of threats of violence with the harsh criticism that CNN receives for spreading fake news. “And I have sensed it here personally here at CNN as well. Partly because of attacks from the President and his allies,” Stelter said of online harassment. “We saw this-this time last week, that the anti-CNN video the President posted.”
“Andrew Kaczynski, of KFILE was able to find the identity of the person, the anonymous user who first posted a version of that video. There was a CNN story saying that we weren't going to share his identity, we weren't going to share his name, partly out of concern that he was going to get threats,” Stelter claimed. He called on Kristen Powers, who agreed that CNN shouldn’t reveal the man’s identity, but defended her initial position of outing him.
Powers was angry that people would dare want him to have his anonymity because he had a history of posting apparently racist content. “And you know, I don’t understand why that person has a so-called right to stay anonymous and do this,” she spat. “You know, what a lot of people were saying is like, well, you have to stay anonymous to express political views. That's not a political view…”
Stelter whined about how #CNNBlackmail became a top trending topic on Twitter and blamed the “alt-right” for its popularity. But that accusation was far from accurate. Both Reason and Vox, outlets from vastly different parts of the political spectrum, were united in their criticism of CNN’s blackmail tactics. Neither of those outlets came anywhere close to fitting the definition of “alt-right.” “News organizations have become obsessed with fighting Trump rather than covering him,” Reason wrote. “What CNN has done is induce some random troll to grovel and apologize for his wrongthink.”
John Avlon, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, decried those that used the hashtag to hammer CNN for pretending to be victims and claimed they were mostly bot accounts. In mocking their outrage, Avlon pretended to speak for them saying:
We're the real victims, we're going to swarm on-- via social media at the very least with real threats to try to create an aura of confusion. And it has to be predicated on a fundamental lie to distract from the original issue, which is the President of the United States tweeting out a meme that shows violence against a news outlet. Then we'll do that and we’ll try to play the victim and get the upper hand. And we’ll use social media swarm tactics to do it.
Again, there was an attempt to link those people legitimately concerned about CNN’s mob family tactics with those making threats of violence.
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Unironically, Powers claimed that those arguing CNN infringed on free speech were “inaccurate” because “my free speech is not infringed upon, necessarily, because I get criticized for something.” By saying socially unacceptable things and suffering “social sanction for that, that's not an infringement on your free speech,” she continued. “You are free to say whatever you wanted and you were held accountable for it.” She even admitted that it held true for journalists.
If the media’s freedoms aren’t infringed by criticism, as Powers described, then why is CNN freaking out over the hashtag and airing the segment? The answer is because they’re trying to connect the legitimate problems people have with the network’s out of control coverage with violence.
Stelter believes, or at least pushes the notion, that criticism of CNN and the press, in general, equates to the shutting down of the journalism and free speech. Stelter said so himself after he claimed he wasn’t exaggerating and called CNN’s detractors “media illiterates:”
When politicians disparage real news as fake, or root for the death of newspapers, or when the call reporters names, or when they claim we make up stories and sources they're not trying to improve journalism. They're trying to get rid of it. And they're giving cover to extremists who go even further … These anti-journalism tactics are not aimed at eradicating bias, or improving news coverage, or even creating alternative sources. They’re about eliminating news coverage.
On TV, Stelter plays a champion for the first amendment, the press, and the freedom of speech. But in reality, his constant smears of critics as alt-right, dangerous, fascist, and anti-journalism only serve to chill free speech. And it’s because he and CNN are “not trying to improve journalism … are not aimed at eradicating bias, or improving news coverage…” To use his own words.
July 9, 2017
11:30:17 AM Eastern
BRIAN STELTER: And I have sensed it here personally here at CNN as well. Partly because of attacks from the President and his allies. We saw this this time last week, that the anti-CNN video the President posted. Then as a result, CNN dug into where it came from. A version of the video was first shared on Reddit, days earlier. Andrew Kaczynski, of KFile was able to find the identity of the person, the anonymous user who first posted a version of that video. There was a CNN story saying that we weren't going to share his identity, we weren't going to share his name, partly out of concern that he was going to get threats. But that CNN reserved the right to change that stance in the future and go ahead and identify him. Kristen you disagreed with that decision at first, you thought he should be outed, why?
KRISTEN POWERS: Well, I thought, you know, except for the safety aspect, you know, certainly you want to protect somebody's safety and I understand that, so I said ultimately CNN did make the right decision. But my initial reaction is why are people who are posting racist things online, in particular, this person who did a roundup of all the Jewish reporters at CNN and put stars of David around them, complained about too many Jews in the media, why does that person have some right to stay anonymous?
I mean, it’s not-- I'm not anonymous. None of those Jewish reporters are anonymous. And none of the people they’re attacking online are anonymous. And you know, I don’t understand why that person has a so-called right to stay anonymous and do this. You know, what a lot of people were saying is like, well, you have to stay anonymous to express political views. That's not a political view, you know, any more than the KKK was expressing political views and they needed to stay anonymous so that they could do it. The reason they're anonymous, is they know they're doing something wrong. If they were fearful that they were going to be outed, I think we will see a serious decline in this kind of behavior. And they're also scaring a lot of people off of Twitter, off of expressing opinions that are controversial because they don't want to be harassed or targeted.
STELTER: That awkward sentence saying that CNN might in the future reserves the right to reveal the identity. It caused the hashtag #CNNBlackmail to start trending. John Avlon, The Daily Beast, you had a reporter write a piece about this issue, and about what we saw the alt right sort of do to criticize CNN for it. What was your assessment of this?
JOHN AVLON: I think what’s troubling and fascinating is the way that-- what Kirsten just explained, which is an emphasis language added by an editor at the request of legal all of a sudden got made and turned into a fictitious vision of playing the victim, that is amplified, moral justification, saying that it was a 15-year-old boy.
STELTER: That this anonymous user was a teenager when he was actually a middle aged man.
AVLON: Very important that that fundamental lie became part of the narrative that created an aura of moral justification for a social media mob frenzy, that was amplified partially artificially in part by bots. But it’s part of a larger pattern which is trying to actually say: “We're the real victims, we're going to swarm on-- via social media at the very least with real threats to try to create an aura of confusion. And it has to be predicated on a fundamental lie to distract from the original issue, which is the President of the United States tweeting out a meme that shows violence against a news outlet. Then we'll do that and we’ll try to play the victim and get the upper hand. And we’ll use social media swarm tactics to do it.”
That’s something new, that’s something dangerous, but it’s something we need to be very firm about not get distracted by. Because the whole purpose is to distract us from the real issue.
STELTER: Kristen, I hear you agreeing?
POWERS: Yeah, I mean, I think what's important about this is they also have cast this as their free speech being infringed upon. And that’s not actually accurate. You know, my free speech is not infringed upon necessarily because I get criticized for something. If you’re posting racist content and somebody finds out who you are, and you suffer social sanction for that, that's not an infringement on your free speech. You are free to say whatever you wanted and you were held accountable for it. We're all held accountable for everything that we say because we're not anonymous, right?
STELTER: Ben Jacobs, do you see a connection between the virtual world, threats and harassment and kind of all the hate online targeted at media companies, and what happens in physical spaces, whether it’s on Capitol Hill or when you’re covering a Montana election?
BEN JACOBS: I certainly, parts of my situation were not anomalous but having been to 18 months’ worth of Trump rallies and have seen how this bleeds in, that you’re seeing it bleed in together. This is to be clear, this is a very small group of folks, this is not as John pointed out, this is amplified by bots. This is a small group of people that are just very dedicated for whatever reason to perusing journalists.