CNN ignited a firestorm of criticism — even from the left — on Wednesday after threatening to expose the identity of the Reddit user who made a video of President Donald Trump decking a stand-in for the news network if he does it again.
CNN tracked down the person — “HanAssholeSolo” — who created the doctored video of the president clothes-lining a man whose face was covered with a CNN logo using footage of a WrestleMania XXIII stunt in 2007 when Mr Trump slammed World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon to the mat.
Mr Trump tweeted the video on Sunday. By Wednesday it had been retweeted more than 340,000 times — his most retweeted post ever.
The cable network’s investigative arm, KFile, said the man had apologised for making the video and promised it would respect the person’s right to privacy — up to a point.
“CNN is not publishing ‘HanAssholeSolo’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 behaviour on social media again,” CNN said in a statement, then added: “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”
The veiled threat led to a trending #CNNBlackmail, with many speaking out against the news network’s apparent underhanded move.
“If only @CNN spent as much time tracking down info on IRS targeting, Fast & Furious, Iran deal etc as they did a meme writer! #CNNBlackmail,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter.
“@CNN U basically coerce apology & threaten release of identity if something changes? Pretty sure a line is crossed here,” wrote Republican Representative Scott Taylor.
Even WikiLeaks took CNN to task. “Trump was bad. CNN is worse: CNN threatens amateur satirist behind Trump video: make fun of us again and we dox you,” it wrote on Twitter, using the term for publishing somebody’s identity on the internet.
German Lopez, a reporter for Vox, a left-leaning news web site, said: “I can’t emphasise how bad this is on CNN’s part. This is basically ‘don’t post stuff we don’t like or we’ll dox you.’ Extremely unethical.”
Andrew Kaczynski, KFile’s senior editor, disputed the allegations that it would out the Reddit user’s identity. “CNN specifically choose not to reveal this guy’s identity and to say we threatened anyone is a total lie,” he wrote on Twitter.
“This line is being misinterpreted. It was intended only to mean we made no agreement w/the man about his identity,” Kaczynski added.
In a statement later Wednesday, CNN said it made no deal with the Reddit user. “CNN decided not to publish the name of the Reddit user out of concern for his safety,” the statement said. “Any assertion that the network blackmailed or coerced him is false.”
Senator Ted Cruz suggested CNN may have broken the law by threatening the video-maker. “Troubling. I assume CNN’s lawyers are examining GA § 16-8-16 Theft by extortion. If CNN constructively obtained the gif-maker’s IP …, ” the Texas Republican wrote on Twitter.
“It’s a GA crime if they threatened to ‘Disseminate any information tending to subject any person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule …’,” he wrote.
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