It was a pretty big scoop, at least as far as Twitter and Reddit were concerned: CNN’s “K-File” investigative unit, run by former BuzzFeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski, found the guy who created the GIF that Donald Trump used for a recent anti-CNN tweet. And then a single poorly-worded line in the story shifted the focus away from the GIF creator and onto CNN itself.
In the story, CNN said it had decided not to identify the Reddit user who originally created the GIF, someone who goes by the name HanAssholeSolo. But then it added a coda to that promise that created a controversy about its motives that continues to expand.
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.
As soon as I read that last line, I thought to myself “That’s odd. It sounds like CNN is threatening to identify this guy if he steps out of line in the future.” That’s a pretty unusual thing for a mainstream news outlet to do. So I tweeted about it:
The threat is the part where you say you'll renege on the deal and reveal his identity if he doesn't behave https://t.co/OBY8EssJLO
— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) July 5, 2017
Kaczynski responded to me (and to others) that we were misinterpreting the phrase, and that it was intended only to make it clear that CNN had not made any kind of agreement with the Reddit user to keep his identity anonymous. But I was hardly the only one who saw it as an implied threat.
Report, or don't report — either is a legit choice — but publishing a threat is very strange and kind of creepy.
— ForbiddenPopehat (@Popehat) July 5, 2017
Unfortunately for CNN, this line was seized upon by pro-Trump forces (my tweet was retweeted over two thousand times, which is an unusually large amount) and used to accuse the media outlet of blackmailing their target. This in turn fed into the ongoing “CNN is fake news” campaign that gave rise to the original Trump GIF of him taking down a person with the CNN logo for a head.
I don’t think CNN deliberately wanted to threaten the Reddit user with that phrase, but I find it hard to believe that no one else could see that this is the way it would be interpreted. According to BuzzFeed, the line was added later by an editor. “All we intended to make clear is that there was no agreement about revealing or not revealing his identity,” a CNN executive said.
That may have been the intention, but the way it was handled has made CNN’s problems worse instead of better. If you have a target on your back the way CNN does, you should try reading everything you write in the most suspicious way possible, just in case.