VOICE OVER: Ryan Wild
WRITTEN BY: Cameron Johnson
No news outlet is perfect, but these errors were truly egregious. For this list, we'll be looking at the most scandalous snafus and reckless journalistic errors made by one of America's most influential news outlets. Our countdown of the worst things CNN has done includes the Republican Town Hall with Donald Trump, Lou Dobbs & Birtherism, their Coverage of the Gulf War, and more!
Top 10 Worst Things That CNN Has Done
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Worst Things That CNN Has Done.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the most scandalous snafus and reckless journalistic errors made by one of America's most influential news outlets.
What’s your take on CNN’s most consequential moves and mistakes? Report it in the comments.
#10: Lou Dobbs & Birtherism
The outrageous conspiracy theory that Barack Obama is not a natural-born American has circulated since his first campaign for the White House. CNN was one of many reputable news outlets to dismiss the story. The talk show "Lou Dobbs Tonight," however, went rogue. The host was one of the first promoters of "Birtherism," and maintained cherry-picked or blatantly inaccurate coverage. Lou Dobbs was long considered an extreme contrast to his network's left-leaning base. But as controversy surrounding the birther movement escalated, he resigned from the network in 2009, with two years left on his contract. Dobbs soon found a more politically congruent home on Fox News, but it was because of him that CNN, of all platforms, helped give birth to the birther movement.
#9: Republican Town Hall with Donald Trump
CNN and Donald Trump have notoriously been embattled throughout the ex-president’s political career. When CNN’s Kaitlan Collins sat down with Trump in New Hampshire to discuss his re-election bid for 2024, it wasn’t in the spirit of friendly debate. Throughout the open forum, interviewer and interviewee clashed over the latter’s divisive policies, comments, and conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, “Republican Town Hall” backfired. There was enough uproar over the special airing the day after Trump was found liable for abusing E. Jean Carroll. Many critics also found it a desperate ploy for ratings and a reckless platform for the controversial candidate. CNN naturally joined in the condemnation of Trump’s comments. But the network’s seemingly exploitative and futile standoff was widely panned as a gross miscalculation.
#8: Inspired the Fake News Craze
News that deliberately misinforms has been around as long as news itself. There’s an important distinction between media bias and fabrication that has faded in discourse on American journalism. As CNN escalated negative coverage of President Donald Trump, they leaned on possible conspiracies between his 2016 campaign and Russian agents. The network’s particular interest in the Steele dossier, dismissed by many outlets as unsubstantiated, undermined their credibility. Worse, it was early fodder for Trump publicly dismissing bad press as “fake news.” The political right wing has since popularized the age-old term to conflate critical mainstream media with disinformation. There are of course many conclusive points of criticism for Trump, but CNN’s efforts to keep conspiracy theories in the public consciousness helped popularize a dangerous pejorative.
#7: “Something Else”
Tensions were running high during news coverage of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. But CNN received additional heat when they presented an exit poll that broke down voter demographics. The race categories included White, Latino, Black, Asian... and “Something Else,” It’s fair to assume that the bulk of this miscellaneous label was Native American. While the American people are far too diverse to easily categorize, the bizarrely dehumanizing label “Something Else” puts into perspective a problem with how data collection recognizes the country’s prominent indigenous population. At least the incident inspired a slew of memorable internet memes. CNN quickly apologized for what they referred to as “a poor choice of words,” but they’ve never completely lived it down.
#6: Jeff Zucker On the Boston Attacks
All of America followed the aftermath of a domestic terror attack at the Boston Marathon in 2013. CNN endeavored to treat this matter with reverence, but faced scandal. It all started when John King misreported that a "dark-skinned male" had been arrested in connection with the attack. CNN Worldwide's new president, Jeff Zucker, then circulated a memo praising the staff's gracious retraction and prompt coverage for strengthening audience trust. This letter came across as a trivialization of a national tragedy and a solemn reporting error. Many outlets accused Zucker of openly valuing the ratings boost and competition that came out of this sad period. This praise of and blow to journalistic integrity set the tone for controversies surrounding CNN's more sensationalistic content during Zucker's tenure.
#5: "Goons and Thugs"
With the Summer Olympics in Beijing came public debate about relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. When the subject came up on CNN's "The Situation Room," commentator Jack Cafferty declared, "I think they're basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they've been for the last 50 years." This incendiary remark was widely condemned for stigmatizing the Chinese people and Chinese Americans. Cafferty later asserted that he was only criticizing the Chinese government, while CNN released an apology to any offended party. Nonetheless, a lawsuit and protests outside of CNN's Atlanta and San Francisco offices ensued. The network's president ultimately sent the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. a personal letter of apology to his countrymen... but not his government.
#4: Carol Costello on Bristol Palin
There’s no love lost between CNN and the family of Alaska governor-turned-media personality Sarah Palin. But “Newsroom” host Carol Costello crossed a line in 2014. With Bristol Palin being known for drama outside of her mother’s spotlight, Costello lightheartedly set up leaked audio of a police report in Anchorage. She laughed and said that she may have found “the best minute-and-a-half of audio” she had ever come across. Of course, many viewers found nothing funny about Bristol frantically recounting being dragged across the ground by a man who was intimidating her sister. Amid public accusations of hostile bias, Costello issued a humble apology to the news outlet Politico. Sarah Palin then issued a response saying that her family received no such apology.
#3: Coverage of the Gulf War
The Gulf War was a controversial episode in American foreign policy. Unprecedented media access and the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle promised truly nuanced coverage of the conflict. Instead, CNN largely stuck to the perspective of the U.S. military. Even human interest stories concentrated more on American servicemen than locals facing unimaginable upheaval. Viewers saw more action in coverage of violent anti-war protests in the States. By the end of the brief war, CNN and its groundbreaking format were a revolutionary success. Still, many accused the network of propaganda and sensationalism. With this watershed moment in journalism sparking the “CNN effect,” wherein news media plays a key factor in policymaking, there’s no overstating the consequences of CNN’s breakout, important or dire.
#2: Misaligned Sympathy
It's hard for a news outlet to find a unique angle in a major story. With the trial of two Ohio high school students accused of sexual assault, it was also hard for outlets to stay neutral. But no one expected that after the conviction, CNN's Poppy Harlow would lament the collapse of the defendants' "promising futures." While it is important to humanize even the worst people, Harlow's words suggested pity for people whose horrific crimes and cold attitudes are well-documented. CNN was already under fire for accidentally revealing the victim's identity, which is protected in the case of a minor. Many say their misaligned sympathies exemplified contemporary debate about privilege and victim blaming. If nothing else, it revealed how cheap emotional news coverage can be.
#1: Valley of Death
Since the Vietnam War, hardly any disturbing detail is shocking. But in 1998, the CNN-Time magazine collaboration "NewsStand" premiered with a potentially explosive report. "Valley of Death" alleged that as part of Operation Tailwind, air support used sarin nerve gas on the Vietcong. This would make the U.S. government liable for serious war crimes. The Pentagon responded with their own investigation, while CNN was hit with multiple defamation suits. After it was concluded that "Valley of Death"'s claims were unsubstantiated, the network retracted the story and fired its producers. One of them claimed that this retraction was the result of pressure from the CIA. Whatever the full extent of the Vietnam War's horrors, "Valley of Death" shows the dangers in unscrupulous journalism.