Very Fake News Wars: Fake Tapper Battles CNN Bosses Over Transparency

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 26: Jeff Zucker and Jake Tapper attend the CNN Correspondents' Brunch at Toolbox Studio on April 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images)
Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images

CNN lead anchor Jake Tapper does not agree with the lack of transparency his network’s management adopted in the wake of a scandal last June that led to the forced resignations of three top CNN editorial officials, Breitbart News can exclusively reveal.

Tapper, in an email conversation in late June 2017, told Breitbart News he would internally advocate inside the network that CNN’s corporate communications team cooperate with a Breitbart News investigation so that the public would have answers about why a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter, and the head of CNN’s investigative reporting unit were forced to resign.

“Send me a note to [Tapper’s official CNN email address—REDACTED SO AS NOT TO REVEAL PERSONAL INFORMATION] and I will forward and advocate they speak to you,” Tapper told Breitbart News via his personal email address when he was informed that CNN’s corporate communications team was not answering any questions about what happened with the scandal, then a week or so old. The email from Tapper was sent on June 30, in response to a Breitbart News email sent the same day.

Tapper has not replied to multiple follow-up emails about whether he still believes CNN should be transparent about this, nor has he answered questions about what happened and why and who was responsible or if he now believes it is acceptable for his network to cover up what happened. And CNN corporate communications officials Emily Kuhn and Lauren Pratapas have not responded to requests for comment on whether the network agrees with Tapper about the need for full transparency in explaining the scandal last June that resulted in three resignations and the retraction of a major story concerning the Trump administration and Russia.

Tapper’s email comments appear to represent a divide between the anchor and CNN management’s handling of the scandal last June that cost three journalists their jobs, when reporter Thomas Frank, editor Eric Lichtblau, and section chief Lex Haris all resigned a few days after the false story was posted and then retracted.

The June scandal drew significant scrutiny from across the media from outlets as diverse as Breitbart News and the Washington Post, which published a special investigative report more than a month after the resignations that highlighted CNN’s lack of transparency about the scandal.

“From the beginning, CNN was reluctant to say what went wrong,” Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote in an August 17 article published by the Post nearly two months after the initial incident.

Farhi summarized the scandal:

On Thursday, June 22, [CNN] published an article on its website, reporting that a Senate committee was investigating alleged ties between a Russian-government investment fund and people associated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

The article said that federal investigators were looking into a January meeting between then-White House adviser Anthony Scaramucci and the fund’s director, a Russian national named Kirill Dmitriev. The story was based on information from an anonymous source.

By late the next day, its reporting under fire, CNN took some extraordinary steps: It retracted the story and apologized to Scaramucci. In the article’s place, a brief editor’s note said that the story ‘did not meet CNN’s editorial standards’ and had been removed. It didn’t say that the story was wrong.

On June 26, a Monday, the news organization did something even more remarkable: It asked for and accepted the resignations of the three journalists — one a Pulitzer Prize winner, another a Pulitzer finalist — who were principally responsible for reporting and editing the article.

And then it said little else, declining to explain what had happened.

Foremost among CNN’s management is the network’s president Jeff Zucker, who has a storied history with Tapper at CNN. When the network hired Zucker as its new president several years ago, CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist said Zucker’s first move was stealing Tapper from ABC News.

“The first thing that Jeff Zucker did when he took over CNN was to hire Jake Tapper and launch another newscast,” Feist told Politico for a 2014 profile. “That was decision No. 1.”

Zucker himself has praised Tapper, including at a launch party at a D.C. bar in 2013—per Politico—where Zucker called Tapper “the face of the new CNN.”

“It is true that when I had the privilege of getting my job, the first thing that I was asked to do was to meet Jake and spend some time with Jake,” Zucker said in remarks, per a contemporary report from Politico. “Obviously, I knew him from afar and knew his work from afar but I got to spend some time with Jake and talked to him about the possibility of coming to CNN.”

“I can tell you from the position that I was in, the prospect of Jake Tapper being the face of the new CNN had me more excited than anything, and I can tell you after today, I know it was absolutely the right thing,” Zucker said then. “I couldn’t be prouder. I couldn’t hope for more than for Jake and his team to take CNN into our next place, into our next century. … This is the start of an incredible new era.”

But now network sources tell Breitbart News there is significant friction between Tapper and Zucker. One widely-reported incident included a contentious interview with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway in February, at the beginning of President Donald Trump’s administration, where Zucker himself ordered Tapper to blow through commercial breaks and keep the interview going for nearly a half an hour. The incident was framed as a positive, but it includes Tapper detailing how only Zucker has the power to order what happened.

Here is an excerpt from a piece on the Tapper-Zucker relationship published in The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year:

When Jake Tapper booked Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior counselor, for an interview Feb. 7, the same day Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, they had no idea an interview with someone as ubiquitous as Conway would become a viral hit — especially one that lasted 25 minutes and 19 seconds, terminal by cable news let alone digital standards. But the forceful back-and-forth during which Tapper challenged Conway on “the sprays of attack and … falsehoods coming from the White House” has been watched nearly 1 million times on, and 25 percent of digital viewers watched the entire 25-minute video.

Of course, Zucker was watching the interview as it happened, making sure the control room knew to let it run long and blow through the commercial breaks. “He was telling my executive producer, ‘Keep going!’ ” says Tapper, “because only Jeff really has the power to do that.”

In Tapper’s view, the president’s escalating war with the media and the politicization of basic facts are a wake-up call. Thanks to Trump, the beleaguered Fourth Estate in general and CNN in particular are rediscovering their core public-service mission amid a fire hose of content and criticism.

Says Tapper: “I feel like people in the media are really seeing themselves, seeing ourselves, as a check and balance, the watchdog, and that’s always supposed to be our role. Let’s keep it going for the next 50 presidents.”

And while the official line from CNN is that there is no division between Tapper and Zucker, Tapper’s email to Breitbart News tacitly implies that Tapper disagrees with CNN management’s decision to ignore inquiries about the network’s fake news scandal.

Tapper himself was grazed by the failures of one of the three CNN editors involved in the fake news scandal — Eric Lichtblau, a former New York Times reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize before joining CNN in 2017 as an editor — who eventually resigned. In his short few months at CNN as an editor, the ex-Times reporter rubbed the wrong way with several people in the newsroom — including Tapper, but also others like chief CNN political analyst Gloria Borger — both of whom ended up on a joint byline with Lichtblau for a piece that required an embarrassing correction, Breitbart News reported last June.

In a June 27 article, Breitbart News reported on the damage this screw-up inflicted on Tapper:

CNN investigative unit editor Eric Lichtblau, one of the officials who resigned after his involvement in a very fake news piece with reporter Thomas Frank and investigative unit chief Lex Haris, was on the byline of another fake news piece that CNN published prior to former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month.

Also on the byline were The Lead with Jake Tapper anchor Jake Tapper, chief CNN political analyst Gloria Borger, and CNN politics producer Brian Rokus. The piece turned out to be entirely inaccurate as to what Comey would actually say in his testimony before the committee.

A source with knowledge of the matter told Breitbart News that Tapper’s inclusion on the byline is not his fault and was entirely accidental. He had, this source says, emailed around to CNN’s team a different detail he learned from a source about Comey’s forthcoming testimony—not the detail that Comey was, as CNN inaccurately reported, going to testify that President Donald Trump’s claims Comey told him multiple times he was not under FBI investigation were untrue. Other CNN staff apparently added Tapper to the byline on the piece without his knowledge. It is as of yet unclear how Borger or Rokus were added onto the byline.

CNN spokeswomen Emily Kuhn and Lauren Pratapas have not responded to requests for comment or to requests to interview Tapper and Borger—two of CNN’s highest profile on-camera personalities. Tapper refused to comment when reached by email from Breitbart News, and he referred Breitbart News to Pratapas for interview requests and other details.

The anonymously-sourced story that included Lichtblau, Tapper, Rokus, and Borger on the byline claimed in its headline that “Comey expected to refute Trump” in his Senate testimony. As The Hill newspaper’s Joe Concha wrote in a piece afterwards, the CNN report inaccurately claimed: “The CNN report said Comey was expected to dispute President Trump’s claims that Comey said he was not under investigation on multiple occasions.”

This “reporting” on CNN, based on unnamed sources, per Concha “said Comey’s conversations with the president ‘were much more nuanced,’ and that Trump drew the wrong conclusion.”

Essentially, they reported that Comey was going to testify that he did not tell President Trump he was not under FBI investigation—as Trump said he repeatedly did in a letter to Comey informing him he was fired. That turned out to be entirely untrue. Comey testified that he did in fact inform President Trump he was not under investigation, and that President Trump was telling the truth.

As such, CNN’s piece from Lichtblau, Borger, Tapper, and Rokus was—after Comey’s testimony supported Trump’s account of the matter—updated and a correction was appended.

“CORRECTION AND UPDATE: This article was published before Comey released his prepared opening statement,” the correction reads. “The article and headline have been corrected to reflect that Comey does not directly dispute that Trump was told multiple times he was not under investigation in his prepared testimony released after this story was published.”

The new headline changed the focus of the story: “Comey unlikely to judge on obstruction.”

But that’s not all. Lichtblau’s apparent recklessness here — which ensnared Tapper and Borger — led to CNN making false claims on television, too, not just online like the original piece from Frank edited by Lichtblau that led to both of their resignations as well as the resignation of Haris.

The following is another key excerpt from Breitbart News’s June 27 story:

Per Concha’s story, before the embarrassing correction that set the predicate for this larger very fake news scandal consuming CNN network-wide now, Borger actually peddled the inaccuracy on television.

“Comey is going to dispute the president on this point if he’s asked about it by senators, and we have to assume that he will be,” Borger said on live television on CNN, per The Hill article. “He will say he never assured Donald Trump that he was not under investigation, that that would have been improper for him to do so.”

It does not appear that Borger has ever apologized for making that inaccurate statement on television, and it does not appear that CNN made the same correction it did online on television. Traditionally, outlets that believe in journalistic integrity make corrections and retractions and updates in the same medium that a mistake was made. CNN did make a correction to this online, but it did not on live television, where Borger pushed the inaccuracy.

If CNN were going to be transparent about this matter — as Tapper believes the network should, despite the apparently stonewalling of the network’s management — Tapper, Borger, and others would answer questions about what happened with regard to this matter. Tapper and Borger have both ignored requests for interviews about this for months since June, and CNN corporate communications officials Lauren Pratapas and Emily Kuhn, among others, have ignored comment requests on this particularly. It appears gag orders were applied to the ousted journalists, as Lichtblau — per the Post — posted on his Facebook page that “unfortunately” he “can’t discuss the details of the situation” about what happened.

The Washington Post has also noted CNN’s lack of accountability. Farhi’s piece from August noted that this “episode ranks as one of the biggest journalistic embarrassments in CNN’s 37-year history.” He then compared the network’s handling of the June 2017 scandal to its more transparent handling of a 1998 scandal that similarly involved the retraction of a “high-profile story.”

“CNN had retracted a high-profile story once before, in 1998, when it acknowledged that its reporting on Operation Tailwind — a Vietnam-era military initiative in which U.S. forces allegedly employed sarin gas — could not be substantiated,” Farhi wrote.

“[CNN] fired two producers responsible for that story,” he continued. “CNN spent almost a month investigating the Tailwind story before releasing a 54-page account of its actions. The network’s response to the [June 2017] Scaramucci story, however, was quick, decisive and largely private. CNN’s managers investigated, retracted the report and accepted the journalists’ resignations over a span of roughly 72 hours.”

CNN refuses to do anything else on the 2017 matter, Farhi noted in the Washington Post, even though CNN’s lack of transparency hurts the network’s credibility and leaves serious questions open.

“The network’s general silence left a number of unanswered questions,” Farhi argued. “CNN has never said why the story did not meet its ‘editorial standards,’ who at CNN reviewed it or how extensively the article had been vetted before publication. It also has not explained what prompted it to seek the resignations of the three journalists, an unusual action given that CNN has never declared the published story fraudulent or even false.”

What’s more, Farhi added in his piece, the reason CNN is doing nothing else is because the network considers the matter “closed.” CNN management refused to cooperate with the Washington Post’s investigation with on-record statements, and continues to refuse to be transparent about what happened with anyone.

“In any event, CNN’s management moved so quickly against the three journalists that the details of their severance agreements weren’t fully set when their departure was announced, according to several people familiar with the matter,” Farhi wrote. “They, like others involved in the story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because CNN considers the matter closed. Asked for comment, CNN stood by a brief statement from June saying that it had accepted its employees’ resignations. It declined to comment further.”


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