CNN’s Confidentiality Crisis Raises Questions on Anonymity Ethics

In July of this year, CNN reported that “sources with knowledge” had confirmed that Michael Cohen was willing to tell special counsel Robert Mueller that then-candidate Donald Trump knew in advance about the July 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son Donald Trump Jr. and Russian nationals offering “campaign dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

CNN said that Cohen alleged he was present when Donald Trump Jr. informed his father of the Russian offer, and that Trump had approved the meeting in question.

This bombshell report, if accurate, places Trump Jr. in serious legal jeopardy as he had previously testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that his father “wasn’t aware of it.”

After Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal counts earlier this month, his attorney Lanny Davis began publicizing his client’s willingness to talk to the special counsel on several networks. On August 21, Davis told Rachel Maddow that Cohen had information “of interest” to Mueller and that he was “more than happy” to cooperate with the investigation.

Later, Davis changed his story when CNN’s Anderson Cooper pressed him on whether Michael Cohen lied to Congress in October 2017 when he told the Senate and House Intelligence Committees that he was not aware of the meeting beforehand and only learned about it from the press when it was reported on in July 2017.

Davis reversed his earlier assertion and clarified that Cohen’s testimony was true and that he was neither aware of the meeting, nor did he in fact have any information that contradicted Trump Jr.’s account. Lanny Davis also stated that he was not the source for CNN’s story.

Adding more confusion to the mess, Davis subsequently told Buzzfeed News that he “unintentionally misspoke” when he told Anderson Cooper that he wasn’t a source and apologized for both being an anonymous source and lying about it.

Once Buzzfeed went public with Davis’ admission, the Washington Post and New York Post both outed him as their sources as well. Davis told both newspapers that he could not “independently corroborate” his earlier claims and apologized for recklessly pushing claims of such significance.

This created quite a bit of uncertainty around what Cohen may know or be willing to tell prosecutors and, in turn, what Davis knows about that. Conservative outlets such as The Daily Caller have capitalized on the mess, attacking the network and trying to debunk the entire story. Many allies of Donald Trump, including Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump Jr., used Lanny Davis’ backtrack of his claims as proof of CNN peddling “fake news” and pushing anti-Trump propaganda.

Donald Trump also seized on CNN and Lanny Davis’ mistakes to reaffirm his denial of having prior knowledge.

In defense of its reporting, CNN pointed to the thin line distinguishing its story as true, which is that it never claimed Cohen’s claims were correct. It only reported that he was willing to testify in support of that claim.

However, that distinction also raises questions as to who CNN’s other source is. One possibility is that Michael Cohen himself is a source. Davis claimed this week that Cohen said he didn’t speak to CNN.

Of course, Cohen could simply be trying to avoid being outed, especially after the network curiously chose to distinguish between him and his attorney writing that, “Cohen, unlike Davis, has not publicly addressed what he might have said to friends, associates or reporters about these matters.”

Whether this served as an admonishment to Lanny Davis for his media blunders, it suggests that Michael Cohen was CNN’s principle source – a fact that Cohen may not want publicized.

It is entirely possible that CNN spoke to one of Cohen’s associates, but it is unlikely the network would continue to stand by reporting resting on the word of a secondary source. Davis’ backtracking is also puzzling. Perhaps it was because supporting his claim would render Cohen’s congressional testimony false, landing him in even more legal jeopardy.

What is even more puzzling is why CNN originally reported that Davis refused to comment when he was in fact an anonymous source. That is the principle issue at the heart of this confusion and CNN’s blatant mistake. If they wished to use him as an anonymous source there was no need to explicitly state that he refused to comment. In fact, it is more than unnecessary, as the Associated Press’ David Bauder pointed out in an article this week: it is a major lapse in journalistic ethics and practice.

In its article addressing the issue from this week, the network devoted multiple paragraphs detailing how Lanny Davis repeatedly changed his story, which is definitely worth noting, but failed to address the issue of Davis’ attribution.

In a strongly worded tweet, the network took issue to Trump’s allegations of “fake news” and doubled down in defense of its reporting.

This suggests that CNN’s other source(s) outweigh the discrepancies provided by Davis. If that is the case, it is perfectly reasonable for the network to keep the identity of its source(s) confidential.

However, in an era when factual reporting is under constant attack by Trump and his allies, it is crucial that networks like CNN uphold their standards for consistently accurate journalism.

Reporting that a source refused to comment when in fact it anonymously contributed to a story doesn’t just mislead the public, it also calls the story’s veracity under question. More problematically, it gives those seeking to erase the distinction between fact and opinion additional ammunition to achieve their goal.

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