CNN has the right to change its mind. It can reasonably believe it is unnecessary—right now—to name a man at the center of a controversy sparked by President Donald Trump’s tweeting of an image that, depending on one’s perspective, foments violence against the press or is a benign but juvenile act that lowers the dignity of the office Trump holds. The network can also reasonably believe, a week from now, the man should be named because more pertinent information about him surfaced.
That is not a contradiction. It is not sinister. It is a not a threat. Imagine CNN had found out after publication the man wasn’t just another private citizen doing something stupid on the Internet, but instead a conduit for either an influential political organization funded by dark money or was linked to those who helped Russia plant fake news stories during the 2016 election cycle. It would be journalistic malpractice at that point not to name him, even after initially declaring it wouldn’t.
That’s why media outlets decide, no matter who disagrees. It’s a foundational principle of our democracy. The First Amendment isn’t the First Amendment if that isn’t true. (Full disclosure: I do contract work with CNN.com and over the past two years have written several columns for the website.)
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 2, 2017
The cable network’s error was spelling out that truth in an article, writing “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change,” which some in the media took as a veiled threat by a large corporation against a private citizen, while others used it to further paint Trump and his supporters as pious victims unfairly attacked by an out-of-control press. It was an idiotic line in an otherwise straight-forward investigation. It was ‘lawyer speak’ of the worst kind, maybe an attempt by the network’s legal department to cover its backside, which ended up unfairly delivering a black eye to its own journalists.
No matter who made the decision, or why, it was foolhardy. CNN had the right to change its mind. Media outlets throughout the country use that journalistic privilege every day. Most just don’t announce it to the public. Truth be told, the public would be better served if more outlets committed to more frequently unmasking sources who use anonymity agreements to push politically-motivated falsehoods or misleading half-truths into the media’s bloodstream, producing distortions hard to undo by next-day corrections.
Not only that, but so much focus on a single, ill-advised line misses a key point: CNN did not name the man, even though he had been trafficking in the kind of ugly, online activity that helped fuel Trump’s campaign and remains at the core of the president’s base of support. It’s a dilemma the media has yet to fully grapple with, what to do when the president of the United States mainstreams fringe-level hate.
The creator of that CNN meme is among those the media has been kicking itself for supposedly missing in the run up to Trump’s victory. They haven’t just begun thinking and doing the kinds of things that “private citizen” was caught by CNN doing. They’ve been doing it for years—particularly since Barack Obama won the presidency in November 2008—and it often went unchallenged because the media had convinced itself they simply represented a fringe that could, and should, be ignored. It didn’t matter how racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic they were, or how large their ranks swelled.
That left the unfortunate—and false—perception that people like him are worlds apart from the rest of us when, most likely, they are our friends and family members. They are our pastors and priests and supervisors at work. They sit next to us in cubicles at the office and sweat with us in manufacturing plants. They greet us with smiles while standing in line at the bank and pray with us when our kids get sick. They help us fix a flat on the side of the road and may even pick up the tab during lunch. They’ve cried alongside us during mass layoffs and at the sight of another overdose at the public park.
They are everyday Americans. They don’t have third eyes. It’s just that they thought it a swell thing to elevate a man who bragged about casually sexually assaulting women and is a hero to white supremacists and nationalists.
And even though they’ve continued supporting a man like Trump in office—including all the ugly things he keeps saying and doing—we keep giving them a pass, by either not printing their names when they get caught in the act, or publishing sympathetic pictures and portrayals of their personal struggles designed to make us empathize with them because they are “struggling” “private citizens.”
At some point, the media is going to have to use its constitutional right—and change its mind about how it deals with this group of Americans. They may be private citizens, but they wielded enough clout to make a uniquely unqualified man president, and their support has propped him up in office. We need more information to better understand what convinced them to either support or be OK with the kind of open bigotry that made Trump president. Forever shielding them from the consequences of their actions does none of us any good.