Hypocritical CNN Fights in Court to Keep Editorial Standards Secret

May 10th, 2018 6:34 PM

CNN’s slogan may be “The Most Trusted Name in News,” but the cable TV channel is not so trusting when it comes to letting other people know the internal editorial standards the network uses when reporting the news.

In fact, CNN is embroiled in a court struggle while trying to keep those guidelines a secret, according to an article posted on Monday by Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple. Wemple began by noting that other news services, including The New York Times, The Post and even Buzzfeed, post their standards online.

“Meanwhile,” he stated, “CNN is waging a legal battle in Florida in part to keep its internal news standards guide out of the public realm.” And, as a reminder, this is the same news outlet that has all but declared war on Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group over what their Media Team has deemed shoddy journalism and lines burred between advocacy and journalism.

According to a court document, that guide contains “privileged, confidential and proprietary information about CNN’s business practices.”

“The tussle over the guide is part of a larger fight over a CNN investigative piece that dates to June 2015” and claimed “the mortality rate for babies undergoing heart surgery at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., was three times the national average.”

That report, which was entitled “The Hospital With a Serious Heart Problem” and was produced by Elizabeth Cohen, their senior medical correspondent, quickly led to the termination of that hospital’s pediatric cardiac surgery department.

In an earlier article, Wemple noted that the “explosive” subject matter resulted in the filing of a defamation lawsuit by Dr. Michael Black, who led the program, against CNN, Cohen, host Anderson Cooper, other network employees and “one of their alleged sources.” The suit claimed:

By suggesting that the surgeon treated “[b]abies as sacrificial lambs” and made “[a] total mess with newborn babies,” and by claiming that Dr. Black’s surgical mortality rate was over three times the national average, the CNN Defendants have attributed to Dr. Black conduct unfit for a medical doctor or surgeon as well as conduct rising to the level of criminality.

“In the Black v. CNN et al. litigation,” the Post critic noted: “CNN claims that it has produced ‘all’ parts of its guide that are relevant to information requests from lawyers for Black.” However, it redacted the other parts.

Then on March 15, Circuit Court Judge G. Joseph Curley, Jr., ruled against Black’s request for the unredacted version of the guide, noting that “the request didn’t encompass that material.”

On the very next day, Black’s lawyers asked for all versions of the “CNN News Standards & Practices Policy Guide” that have been issued since 2013. A subsequent filing by CNN claims that this request was filed “[s]olely for the purposes of harassment.”

As a result, Black attorney Thomas Clare asserted: “This goes to the heart of the case. If they do not follow their own standards and practices in preparing this statistical analysis, or other aspects of the story, or their treatment of confidential sources, … those sorts of things violate CNN’s practices.”

“That’s a lot of lawyering to protect documents that other news organizations put online for all to view,” Wemple stated.

“Asked about the hubbub over the guide, a CNN spokesperson emailed the Erik Wemple Blog: ‘We have already produced the relevant portions under an agreed-to protective order. They want to see other parts we don’t think are relevant. The court will decide.’”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Locke, another lawyer representing Black, issued this statement:

It is disappointing that CNN, who prides itself on pushing others for openness and transparency -- just like it did in its reporting on St. Mary’s Hospital and Dr. Black’s mortality rate -- refuses to apply that same standard for openness and transparency to itself.

CNN has repeatedly fought for public access to litigation discovery documents, including in cases related to its reporting on Dr. Black, yet here it is vigorously fighting to hide its own conduct. ... Why don’t the rules that CNN applies to others apply equally to itself?

That’s a question Wemple would like to see answered, even though “CBS News, ABC News and Fox News keep their own guidelines under wraps. NBC News didn’t even respond to a request for information about its guide.” As a result, “The Most Trusted Name in News” isn’t doing anything to generate any more trust in itself. Perhaps CNN should follow its own demands for transparency, even when dealing with its own internal matters.