Donald Trump vs. CNN: How the President Is Trolling the Media Into Oblivion

Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a joint news conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 9. The writer is not allowed to see Trump's tweets anymore. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The president of the United States of America is a “shitposter.”

It’s not an elegant turn of phrase. But it is, I think, the correct terminology to capture a political moment so monstrously stupid that even Jerry Springer finds it embarrassing. To shitpost, according to the scholarly journal Urban Dictionary, is to “make utterly worthless and inane posts on an internet message board,” particularly those involving memes or low-quality visuals.

And the president’s latest act of shitposting—tweeting out a video edited to show Trump wrestling, and beating up, the CNN logo—has flung the 24-hour news network into a week-long controversy involving death threats, claims of blackmail and a Reddit user who calls himself “HanAssholeSolo.” It’s very hard to imagine having to explain that sentence to a person from 2007. But frankly, it’s also pretty hard to explain that sentence to a normal person from 2017 who doesn’t spend every waking moment following incremental developments in Trump’s blustery war with the media. (Which, probably, is healthy.)

Related: Trump blocked me on Twitter for telling him he’s not as cool as witches

Now, a week after Trump’s tweet, CNN is accused of blackmailing the Reddit user behind the wrestling clip, and the network’s journalists (and even some of their families) are being subjected to threats and harassing phone calls from pro-Trump trolls and Redditors. Curiously, the line from the CNN story that was interpreted as blackmail (a stretch) wasn’t written even by the reporter. According to Gizmodo, it was added by a CNN executive as a legal safeguard, but the threatening tone proved disastrous. But as the #CNNBlackMail hashtag spread through the alt-right this week, things got ugly. “These far-right trolls are really threatening people and coming after people,” an anonymous CNN employee told The Daily Beast. “Somebody’s gonna do something stupid at some point.”

For observers of Gamergate, these tactics are familiar—only now the digital mob is taking inspiration from the highest reaches of government. Trump frequently approaches social media like a message board troll, so it’s darkly fitting that far-right trolls are adopting the basest instincts of internet forum culture to wage war against the president’s perceived enemy: CNN.

Trump can’t win a war against CNN in the courts. But he can continue to troll the network (and other media outlets) into chaos and disarray. Consider Trump’s 2006 battle with the journalist Tim O’Brien, who had published a book alleging that Trump’s net worth was far lower than claimed. Trump sued the author for libel, and after a lengthy legal process, the case was eventually dismissed. But Trump was pleased: “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees,” he later told The Washington Post, “and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”

It’s not farfetched to think that Trump feels similarly pleased with himself for bringing chaos to CNN. (Jeffrey A. Zucker, the president of the network, has described Trump’s behavior as “bullying.”) By casting journalists as villains in his administration, the president makes questions of objectivity even trickier to navigate. As the writer/comedian Sarah Cooper tweeted, “Journalists aren't supposed to be the story, so by making them the story, Trump automatically makes them look biased in defending themselves.”

If you’re still confused about the state of the president’s war with CNN, here’s an explainer.

Q: Why is the president so mad at CNN?
Trump has been regularly fuming about CNN, which reports critically on him (and which he calls “Fake News”), since the campaign days. But this particular wave of hostility seems to have been prompted by a retracted CNN story regarding a “Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials.” Three journalists resigned after CNN pulled the story. The president spent days gloating about this, though it’s worth noting that when he lies, nobody resigns or issues a retraction.

Q: What about that video? Did Trump really wrestle a guy from CNN?
No. The video is an old clip of Trump’s appearance at WrestleMania. The CNN logo was superimposed over another guy’s head.

Q: Where did the doctored video come from?
Reddit, of course. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski did some digging and determined that the video originated with a Reddit user named “HanAssholeSolo,” who’s left behind a sizable trail of racist and anti-Semitic posts (including a graphic showing CNN employees with Jewish stars next to their names). Mr. Asshole Solo apologized and deleted his other posts.

Q: "HanAssholeSolo”? What kind of name is—
It’s a Reddit username. If you haven’t spent much time on Reddit, feel free to keep it that way.

Q: I heard that CNN is blackmailing the pro-Trump Reddit guy. Is that true?
Not exactly—though the outlet definitely botched how the story was handled. CNN tracked down the source of the video, but declined to publish his real name. It’s reasonable for news outlets to take an interest in this Reddit user, since he’s been involved in a big, newsworthy event; there was a clear public interest in how the violent video traveled from pro-Trump forums to the president’s Twitter feed. But the issue of anonymity is somewhat thorny, since the guy is a private citizen and, by most accounts, didn’t give permission for Trump to use his video. He is not a public figure, and if doxed, he could be subject to threats or harassment.

What’s weird is that CNN granted “HanAssholeSolo” a sort of conditional anonymity. This passage from the story was widely interpreted as a threat to dox the Reddit user if he resumes his “ugly behavior”:

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.

This is odd language to include in a news story. It makes it seem as though the promise of anonymity is transactional, in exchange for a promise not to misbehave. But it wasn’t intended as blackmail. It was just sloppy wording. As Kaczynski noted on Twitter, the line was meant to express that CNN hadn’t made any agreement with the man regarding anonymity. (If that paragraph was poorly phrased, it might be because it wasn’t constructed by a writer; it was written “by a network executive as a defensive measure to explain their sourcing decision,” Gizmodo later found.)

“I don’t think CNN intended this as blackmail,” Poynter’s ethicist concluded, but “it’s easy to see how the unfortunate wording in the story could be easily misinterpreted.” It’s also easy to see that aggressive pro-Trump trolls might act in bad faith and attack CNN’s reporters regardless of the anonymity issue. When Trump characterizes the media as “the enemy of the American people,” his most vociferous followers might regard it as a patriotic deed to harass journalists.

Q: Wait, I thought the wrestling video was made by a 15-year-old kid?
No. This false detail spread quickly in early social media posts, stirring up anti-CNN fervor among Trump supporters inclined to believe that the network was threatening a minor. (Donald Trump Jr., for instance, tweeted: “So I guess they weren't effective threatening the admin so they go after & bully a 15 y/o?”) But it isn’t true. Andrew Kaczynski, the CNN reporter who spoke to the Reddit user, has confirmed that he is an adult.

Trump did once retweet a 16-year-old boy bashing CNN, but that was a separate incident.

What’s going on at CNN now?
Lots of unease, reportedly. Kaczynski’s family is receiving dozens of harassing phone calls. So are reporters and executives at the network.

Why doesn’t Trump just tell his followers not to target journalists with death threats or anti-Semitic memes?
Well… . That would require Trump to acknowledge that some of his followers make death threats and post anti-Semitic memes. Plus, Trump’s tweet was interpreted as encouraging attacks on journalists. The larger issue isn’t that the president dislikes CNN (which has mishandled plenty in recent weeks). It’s that the president dislikes the fundamental notion of journalism holding power to account.

Are we going to be OK?
At press time, we really don’t know.