The Time Warner-owned cable-news network found itself in an unusual position Wednesday during a chaotic press conference held by the President-elect. The network that strives to appeal to the broadest swath of viewers, liberal and conservative, was branded as an outlier by the next inhabitant of the nation’s highest office.
“Your organization is terrible,” Trump said to Jim Acosta, CNN’s senior White House correspondent, who tried to get the president-elect to answer a question during a press conference broadcast across many TV and digital outlets. “You are fake news!”
The accusations may have come as a surprise to CNN executives. CNN is as prevalent a news brand as USA Today – more so, in an era of continued revenue downturns and employee cutbacks in the newspaper industry. Thanks to recent investments, CNN now has a perch in the digital and social frontiers, as well as on the TV screen. Yet CNN’s relationship with the Trump administration isn’t just a matter for the journalists who toil on shows like “New Day” or “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”
“Soon-to-be President Trump has made it clear he feels the media is biased. It remains to be seen if the only penalty for incurring his ire is to deny a question,” said David Caputo, a professor of political science at Pace University in New York. “Looking forward, President Trump and the media will likely have a contentious relationship. How contentious remains to be seen.”
At issue is a report made Tuesday by CNN, noting that a two-page synopsis of memos containing allegations against Trump had been included in classified materials presented last week to both the incoming president and President Barack Obama. CNN was first to report the memos, but took pains not to reveal their contents, many of which are salacious and unsubstantiated.
The matter was complicated by BuzzFeed, a digital-news upstart with which CNN has sparred in recent months. CNN has taken shots at BuzzFeed’s business performance on Twitter and recently lured away an influential team of political reporters. Soon after CNN made its report on air and online, BuzzFeed printed the contents of the memos, even though its own team had not substantiated them.
That distinction appeared to elude the incoming Trump administration, and CNN pressed it forward in a statement released Wednesday.
“We are fully confident in our reporting. It represents the core of what the First Amendment protects, informing the people of the inner workings of their government; in this case, briefing materials prepared for President Obama and President-elect Trump last week,” CNN said. “We made it clear that we were not publishing any of the details of the 35-page document because we have not corroborated the report’s allegations. Given that members of the Trump transition team have so vocally criticized our reporting, we encourage them to identify, specifically, what they believe to be inaccurate.”
CNN declined to make executives available to elaborate beyond its press statement. On CNN’s air, however, anchor Jake Tapper spelled out why the president-elect’s response was worrisome. “When Mr. Trump went after our own Jim Acosta, saying he’s fake news and he isn’t going to call on him, what I suspect we are seeing here is an attempt to discredit legitimate, responsible attempts to report on this incoming administration with irresponsible journalism. That hurts us all.”
A breakdown in the network’s relationship with Trump could be cause for concern for many parties. A refusal to take questions from a particular media outlet suggests the Trump administration might try to freeze out any outlet that raises issues not to its liking. And the fracas erupts as CNN’s parent, Time Warner, has agreed to merge with AT&T, pending regulatory reviews and other conditions, in a deal valued at $85.4 billion. Could a president angered by CNN’s journalism work to scuttle the deal? In October, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson made plain that he valued journalistic independence for CNN.
Trump’s method of handling the press is a break with decades of White House tradition. “For an American president, answering questions from the news media comes with the turf, whatever your opinion of the reporter, the outlet or the question itself,” said Peter Slevin, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “It was worrisome enough that Donald Trump had not held a press conference since July, but when he refused, in a fit of pique, to take questions from certain reporters and berated their organizations, he set a lousy example for the country and a troubling precedent for his presidency.”
CNN is locked in a perpetual battle for viewers not only with TV rivals Fox News Channel and MSNBC, but also national news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as a new tranche of digital players, like BuzzFeed. Most relationships between sources and media outlets have their ups and downs. But if Trump continues to slam and cut off CNN, its journalists will have to work harder at other means of gaining information, suggested Slevin. “I suspect he’ll learn the hard way that good reporters react to rejection by pushing harder for answers,” he said.