The Media Today

A source backtracks, raising questions about CNN’s scoop

August 28, 2018

After serving as an anonymous source for a bombshell scoop and then lying about it on national television, Lanny Davis is coming clean. Davis, Michael Cohen’s attorney, tells BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg that he was an anonymous source for CNN’s scoop that reported Cohen had claimed Trump had prior knowledge of the infamous meeting between his son and Russians in June 2016. Davis had previously denied being the source of that information.

Backing up a bit: On July 26, CNN published a story reporting Cohen’s claims, and further stating that Cohen was willing to tell Special Counsel Robert Mueller what he knew. The article, by Jim Sciutto, Carl Bernstein, and Marshall Cohen, appeared to contradict Trump’s denials that he had any prior knowledge of the meeting, and came weeks before Cohen pleaded guilty to crimes including campaign finance violations, which he said he committed at the direction of Trump. The claims in the story were based on “sources with knowledge” of the events, who were granted anonymity.

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Other outlets quickly rushed to confirm CNN’s reporting, and Davis provided that confirmation to at least some of them; both The Washington Post and the New York Post outed Davis as their anonymous source once he began backing away from that position over the weekend. He told the Post that he “could not independently corroborate” the assertions he previously made on background and on the record, and his statements turned scrutiny upon the original CNN story. Davis further complicated matters by telling Anderson Cooper last week that he was not the source of CNN’s story. (“I made a mistake,” Davis told Perlberg regarding his appearance with Cooper. “I did not mean to be cute.”)

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CNN cited “sources”—plural—with knowledge of the claims attributed to Cohen, so Davis’s walk-back doesn’t necessarily mean the story was incorrect. A network spokesperson told Perlberg, “We stand by our story, and are confident in our reporting of it.”

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Without knowledge of CNN’s full sourcing, it’s impossible to pass judgment on its story, but Davis’s actions certainly call into question the article’s premise. They also highlight the dangers of relying heavily on anonymous sources. The initial CNN story, as well as The Washington Post’s follow-up, stated that Davis had declined to comment on the record, even though he was being cited as an anonymous source in those same stories. This practice—allowing a source to officially demure while using what they say “on background” to report a piece—can leave readers feeling deceived once the source is unmasked.

The entire saga also demonstrates the perils of relying on unreliable narrators, a group that political reporters have no paucity of options to choose from. So CNN is left defending an anonymously sourced story in which one of the sources has discredited himself. Readers don’t know who the other sources are, and are asking valid questions about what Cohen claims to know. Standing by your journalists’ reporting is fine if warranted, but in this case, some transparency is needed.

Below, more on Davis’s reversal and the mess it has created.

  • Fallout: The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake writes that Davis’s about-face has “done real damage to the case against Trump.”
  • Conservative outlets pounce: Several outlets have piled on CNN’s decision to stand by its story, echoing The Hill’s Joe Concha, who tweeted “Retraction seems to be the only recourse here.”
  • Good questions: Reacting to Perlberg’s story, Greta Van Susteren asks, “Why did Lanny Davis do this? And how can any news organization now use him as a source? Or even book him on a show?”
  • When to trust anonymous sources: Last summer, FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. tackled the issue of anonymous sourcing, offering a rough guide for how to approach stories that rely on unidentified quotes.


Other notable stories

  • Pam Bondi, still the attorney general of Florida, recently spent three days as co-host of Fox News’ The Five. The Tampa Bay Times’s Steve Contorno examines Bondi’s apparent audition for a post-office position while still on the state payroll.
  • A Bloomberg News reporter was reassigned after the CEO of Wells Fargo called to complain about the journalist, reports CNN’s Oliver Darcy. The decision by Bloomberg News EIC John Micklethwait to move Shahien Nasiripour off of the Wells Fargo beat “rocked part of the banking team,” Darcy writes, “and was a contributing factor in the departures of some of the unit’s veteran reporters.”
  • The New Yorker’s Ian Parker has a long profile of Glenn Greenwald, and the “leftist journalist’s bruising crusade against establishment Democrats—and their Russia obsession.”
  • The LA Times’s Lauren Raab reports on infighting at LA Weekly. Less than a year after a mysterious group bought the alt weekly, one of the owners is suing the others, “alleging they have mismanaged the alternative weekly, pillaged it for their own gain and improperly kicked him out of the management team,” Raab writes.
  • For CJR, David Hirsch praises the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the way he interacted with the press. Even in Annan’s most difficult moments, Hirsch writes, he “understood the role of the media to signal democratic ideals, balance unrestrained power, and sometimes act as an agent for discomfort in what many perceive as the soft-cushioned easy chair of the diplomatic establishment.”
  • For years, Mark Leibovich chronicled the inner workings of Washington DC’s power brokers. Now, he’s turned his focus to football. The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis profiles Leibovich who, in his new book focusing on NFL owners, has found “a new group of aging, needy white men—and they seemed totally unfamiliar with the rules of magazine writing.”
  • Page Six’s Emily Smith reports that NBC News Chairman Andy Lack “is facing the boot from the once-prestigious news division over his mishandling of a series of #MeToo scandals and the Megyn Kelly debacle.” Responding to Smith’s inquiry, an NBC spokesman said, “That is absurd.”
  • For CJR, Rick Paulas explores another case of a media outlet choosing a problematic image in its reporting on a murder victim. Bay Area Fox affiliate KTVU pulled a photo of Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old murdered at a BART stop in Oakland, from Facebook, depicting her holding an object that appeared to be a gun. The decision, for which the station quickly apologized, fit a pattern of outlets treating victims differently depending on their race, Paulas writes.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.