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CNN ‘Sting’ Video Intensifies Rifts Between Trump and News Media

Variety logo Variety 6/28/2017 Ted Johnson
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The White House continued its attacks on mainstream media outlets on Tuesday, as its deputy press secretary called on the public to watch an undercover video obtained by a conservative group in which a CNN producer criticizes the network’s focus on the Trump-Russia story, labeling it “mostly bullsh-t.”

The video was the hot topic of discussion for the right, which used it to bolster their claims that CNN was peddling “fake news,” while Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders urged journalists and “everybody across the country” to take a look at it. She said that she did not know if it was accurate.

“I think if it is accurate, I think it’s a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism,” she said at a White House press briefing.

“I think that we have gone to a place where if the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America,” she said.  “And I think if that is the place that certain outlets are going, particularly for the purpose of spiking ratings, and if that’s coming directly from the top, I think that’s even more scary and certainly more disgraceful.  And I hope that that’s not the direction we’re headed.  I hope that outlets that have continued to use either unnamed sources, sometimes stories with no sources at all. We’ve been going on this Russia-Trump hoax for the better part of a year now with no evidence of anything.”

The Trump-Russia story has been a source of intense competition for scoops between a number of news outlets including CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times, often relying on the use of unnamed sources, a common practice across all investigative reporting.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller is serving as a special counsel to investigate whether there was any collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russians who were involved in meddling in the 2016 election. The FBI itself has been investigating those ties since last summer, but their probe was not made public until then-FBI Director James Comey revealed it in testimony before Congress in March. Trump fired him in May.

Trump himself has complained that he is a victim of a “witchhunt,” and the CNN video gave his defenders some fuel to make the case that he is being treated unfairly by CNN.

The video released by conservative activist James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas features a nine-minute discussion with John Bonifield, supervising producer of the CNN Health unit, in which Bonifield criticizes CNN’s heavy focus on the probe into the Trump administration’s connection to Russian officials.

Bonifield describes the Trump-Russia story as “mostly bulls—” and said the coverage was driven by the desire for ratings. He also says that Trump is “probably right” to describe the media’s focus on Russia’s ties to his administration as a “witch hunt.” Bonifield does not appear to realize that he is being videotaped by a man whose face is not seen on camera and is identified only as “PV Journalist” on screen.

A source familiar with the situation said the Bonifeld met the person who shot the video through a peer mentorship group. The videographer expressed an interest in pursuing a career in journalism, and Bonifeld agreed to mentor him. They met a total of five times.

A spokesman for Project Veritas did not return a request for comment.

CNN said that it “stands by” Bonifeld, and released a statement in which it said, “Diversity of personal opinion is what makes CNN strong, we welcome it and embrace it.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Trump himself bashed CNN and other news outlets as “Fake News,” as he has many times before. He made a reference to the resignation of three prominent editorial staffers who resigned on Monday following the retraction of an online story posted last Friday about a Trump supporter’s alleged ties to a Russian investment fund. CNN apologized for the story, and the Trump supporter, Anthony Scaramucci, accepted it.

Some of the Trump administration’s complaints about the news media are gripes that would be familiar to past administrations, like journalists’ fixation on scandal and process over policy. But Trump and his press spokespersons have been especially aggressive in trying to undermine the credibility of news organizations.

That frustration was on display at Tuesday’s briefing.

Brian Karem, a reporter for the Sentinel newspapers, told Huckabee, “You’re inflaming everybody right here and right now with those words.  This administration has done that as well.  Why in the name of heavens — any one of us, right, are replaceable, and any one of us, if we don’t get it right, the audience has the opportunity to turn the channel or not read us.  You have been elected to serve for four years at least.  There’s no option other than that.

“We’re here to ask you questions, you’re here to provide the answers, and what you just did is inflammatory to people all over the country who look at it and say, see, once again, the President is right and everybody else out here is fake media,” he added.  “And everybody in this room is only trying to do their job.”

Sanders responded, “I disagree completely.  First of all, I think if anything has been inflamed it’s the dishonesty that often takes place by the news media.  And I think it is outrageous for you to accuse me of inflaming a story when I was simply trying to respond to his question.”

Rush Limbaugh devoted an extensive part of his radio show on Tuesday to CNN, including the Project Veritas video and the CNN resignations. He at one point singled out the three journalists who resigned from the network, and identified one of the reporters, Thomas Frank, as the well-known author of the book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” In fact, they are two different people.

“So my bad. I thought I had nailed that down,” Limbaugh said.

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