Ask the ethicist: Did CNN blackmail a pro-Trump Reddit troll?

CNN ignited a powder keg of controversy on Independence Day when its chief internet sleuth, Andrew Kaczynski, reported a blow-by-blow account of his successful quest for the Reddit user behind a GIF of President Trump wrestling CNN to the ground.

Kaczynski, who ultimately opted not to unmask "HanAssholeSolo" in his story, drew pushback from critics who said CNN's justification for keeping the Reddit user anonymous amounted to a kind of coercion. Here's the relevant paragraph:

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.

The story touched off a hashtag, #CNNBlackmail, and sparked a debate on social media about the newsworthiness of the original story and the decision to preserve the Redditor's anonymity. So, did CNN make the right call? Below is a question-and-answer session with Indira Lakshmanan, Poynter's Newmark Chair for Journalism Ethics, about the network's decisions.

What do you think of CNN's decision to report on the creator of this meme?

I see nothing wrong with CNN investigating the person who was behind a meme that appeared in a pro-Donald Trump sub-Reddit that was adapted and later shared by the President of the United States.

The president’s tweeting of the meme showing Trump bodyslamming a man with a CNN logo superimposed over his face made the GIF newsworthy, and the creator’s celebration of how “honored” he was that his GIF was tweeted by the “MAGA EMPORER himself” [sic], in his words, indicated he was proud to have triggered and become part of the national conversation.

It’s a legitimate news story to find out who was behind the meme and his motivations — was he involved in politics or on attacks on the media; was he a Trump official posing as an ordinary citizen? CNN discovered the same person had created a series of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-gay posts on social media.

Let’s face it — posting political commentary on social media in the 21st century is the equivalent of standing on a soap box and launching a tirade in the public square in the 19th or 20th century. You can’t assume you’re going to stay anonymous just because you choose an anonymous handle. If what you say becomes newsworthy or the president repeats it, you become the news and finding out who you are is fair game.

What do you think of the decision not to disclose his identity?

There are legitimate reasons that journalists decide in certain circumstances to withhold the identities of people we interview: they may be victims, witnesses or even accessories to crimes; they may fear for their physical safety; they may face retribution for their actions or disclosures; they may be whistleblowers inside the government or a corporation.

This is especially true of private individuals — the same considerations are not usually extended to public figures and politicians who are expected to be more aware of the consequences of their actions. The Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics lays out circumstances for offering anonymity.

I think it’s reasonable that CNN would decide to withhold the man’s name out of concerns about his safety and the irreversible impact on his professional and personal life if his identity were revealed, particularly after he made such a full-throated apology. CNN insists that no deal was made with the man to extract an apology in exchange for withholding his name.

What I find troubling is that the story focused on his pledge that “he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again,” culminating with the highly unusual statement that “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.” Why not simply state the reason for giving him anonymity: “CNN has decided to withhold his name out of concern for his safety and because he apologized…” — or whatever their reasons?

I see no need to include an additional sentence saying that the network reserves the right to rescind that decision if he returns to his old behavior. That seems implicit, in that any day is a new day with new circumstances that could yield a new story.

Do you regard this as "blackmail" or coercion of some kind by CNN, as some critics are alleging?

CNN says that it "decided not to publish the name of the Reddit user out of concern for his safety" and that "any assertion that the network blackmailed or coerced him is false."

I don’t think CNN intended this as blackmail, but in the painfully polarized political climate of 2017, it’s easy to see how the unfortunate wording in the story could be easily misinterpreted, and it’s not surprising that defenders of the president or critics of CNN would seize on it as an implicit threat.

What, if any, lessons do you think journalists can take from this episode?

Be very careful about when and why you grant anonymity and how you explain those decisions to the public. Discuss those decisions with top editors, think about how they might be interpreted — or misinterpreted — by your critics, and be ready to defend them.

  • Profile picture for user Indira

    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan is the Newmark chair in journalism ethics. She has covered campaigns, coups and revolutions, reporting from the U.S. and 80 countries for The Boston Globe, Bloomberg, the International New York Times, NPR, PBS, Politico Magazine and others.

  • Profile picture for user bmullin

    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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