Fake News: CNN and The Stray Pellet Theory

Imagine you’re holding a shotgun and you are ten feet away from a target. You pull the trigger. The target is obliterated, but a stray pellet missed the large circle. From behind you, someone shouts “miss!”


Late last week, CNN published an article claiming that the Senate Intelligence Committee was investigating one of President Trump’s associates, Anthony Scaramucci, for meeting with the head of a Russian investment fund before Trump’s inauguration. They were allegedly discussing the possibility of sanctions placed against Russia by the Obama administration being lifted.

Scaramucci called CNN immediately after the story was published and threatened a lawsuit. In turn, CNN then reviewed the story and determined it did not meet its editorial standards. The story was retracted, an apology was issued to Scaramucci — who accepted the apology on Twitter — and three employees resigned for their role in the story.

The above is appropriate operating procedure when a mainstream media outlet publishes an inaccurate or misleading article, particularly one wherein it implies that an individual was being investigated for committing a criminal act. However, in his campaign to brand mainstream media as “fake news,” President Trump took this admission from CNN as evidence of his thesis. He scored them on the stray pellet.

By citing for a week a bombshell Washington Post article about former President Obama’s failure to act upon the initial reports of Russian interference in the election, President Trump accomplished the dual objectives of lambasting his predecessor’s judgment and deflecting attention from his personal involvement in the ongoing Russia investigation. Despite this, it seems that Trump is still going out of his way to brand the entire mainstream media as untrustworthy.

In a previous piece, I gave a brief breakdown of the president’s use of the term “fake news,” which in summation is to muddy the waters. It is a technique as old as time, but in Trump’s case, it bears considerable resemblance to Soviet/Russian dezinformatisya, or disinformation. The purpose is to muddle any notion of truth, thus making various versions of truth plausible. If you were to watch or read any of the media outlets listed in Trump’s tweet, you would get the idea that things were not going so well for his administration, an impression supported by his historically low approval ratings. If these outlets can be discredited, his version of fact, which his administration is historically great and accomplishing more than any administration before it, can become more plausible by relative comparison.

A means to those ends in this instance is a stray pellet argument. Take an example of a misdeed or mistake and judge by that one example while ignoring the entire body of work. CNN ran a bad story. CNN is fake news. CNN is mainstream media. Mainstream media is fake. See that hole outside the target? This guy is a horrible shot.

This is what makes it more imperative than ever for mainstream outlets to be fair and accurate. The public shaming and ridicule of the media by a sitting president is unprecedented. It is disastrous for a president to attempt to discredit the whole of the free press, or as the lead strategist on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, Stuart Stevens put it:

As awful as the timing could be, CNN ran into a fairness kerfuffle when Project Veritas, a self-proclaimed investigative film journalism organization whose techniques have been the subject of a $1 million lawsuit, captured undercover video of a CNN producer claiming that CNN is pushing the Russia story because of ratings, and that “the President is probably right to say like, look, you are witch hunting me.”

The story made the rounds on social media as proof positive that the Russia story is a hoax made up by the mainstream media. The opinion of that one CNN producer being taken to be the view of the entire network. The reality is that CNN likely employs at least 1,000 people with the word “producer” in their title. The producer caught on camera, John Bonifield, is a senior producer of CNN’s medical unit. This would make it unlikely that Bonifield has any knowledge of the editorial decisions made by CNN in regards to the Russia coverage or the coverage of politics in general. CNN itself did not shy away from the report or their producer, saying in a statement “Diversity of personal opinion is what makes CNN strong, we welcome it and embrace it.” The statement was not enough to keep the video from getting over 1 million views on Youtube and being shared all over right-wing media. Even credible conservative outlets such as the National Review got in on the act.

Against the behavior of the president, the apparatus of right-wing outlets such as Breitbart, Infowars, and Fox News behind him, plus his steadfast supporters; the mainstream media can not afford to be anything less than perfect. They are looking for any misstep, any stray pellet, with which to claim the entirety of the fourth estate invalid.

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