When CNN became embroiled in controversy in 2017 after it threatened to identify the creator of a satirical image tweeted by President Donald Trump, left-wing Wikipedia editors had the Wikipedia article on the incident removed and its contents buried at the bottom of a page on CNN controversies. Editors proceeded to remove nearly a third of the CNN controversies article and have continued censoring the article up to the current year, including the controversy over its coverage of the 2020 election.
CNN’s own page is nearly devoid of any mention of past controversies, in stark contrast to Wikipedia pages on conservative media such as Fox News and Breitbart News, where controversies are mentioned at the very top of their main pages. Both outlets, among others, have also been the target of an ongoing purge of conservative media from the site, while CNN has been protected.
Roughly an hour after a Wikipedia page on CNN’s blackmail controversy was created, Travis Mason-Bushmann who edits as “NorthBySouthBaranof” on Wikipedia, started a discussion on redirecting the article to a “CNN controversies” page, where it would be one item among many. He cited a policy stating “not all verifiable events are suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia.” The editor had previously been banned from editing the page on GamerGate, the anti-corruption movement in gaming, due to his aggressive agenda-driven editing. The editor quickly attracted support from mainly left-wing Wikipedia editors, including five (“MrX”, “Volunteer Marek”, “Objective3000”, “Sagecandor“, and “ValarianB”) whose positions on deleting an article critical of the President evidenced a double standard as both articles were subject to similar policy complaints.
This “CNN controversies” page underwent a sweeping series of changes, the editors proceeded to remove nearly a third of the entire page. The extensive removals were first noticed on the Reddit community WikiInAction, which monitored abuses of power on the encyclopedia prior to a leftist takeover. While some of the deletions appear consistent with Wikipedia’s standards, many were not.
Removals by MrX included a paragraph about a CNN host’s comments appearing to praise a gunman who attacked Dallas police for which she later apologized. A section on Kathy Griffin’s fake Trump beheading photos, which led to her termination as co-host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve broadcast, was also edited by MrX to remove mention of the President noting the images upset his 11-year-old son Barron. Criticism Griffin received from Chelsea Clinton and CNN’s own Jake Tapper was also removed.
Volunteer Marek removed an incident where a CNN producer joked about Trump’s plane crashing and a section about CNN’s Jack Cafferty making inflammatory remarks regarding China that led to protests outside their offices. As the Cafferty material cited Reuters, this removal was apparently due to it citing the International Business Times, whose reliability was inconclusively challenged six years earlier partly over a perceived conservative slant to the outlet. More recent discussions have generally favored its use as a source.
One of the more egregious removals concerned a controversy involving then-CNN correspondent Candy Crowley’s questionable challenge of a claim by Mitt Romney about Obama’s response to the Benghazi attacks during the 2012 presidential debates. Marek removed it due to one of the sources being the Daily Caller, which many editors argue is unreliable, but the section twice cites ABC News. Given the pace of these extensive deletions it is unlikely either editor checked for additional sourcing beyond that cited in the article.
Both editors also targeted the section about the blackmail controversy. One added a tag stating the three-paragraph section was excessively detailed. Another removed mention of the CNN Blackmail hashtag trending on Twitter, labeled those calling it blackmail “alt-right,” and removed material noting a Vox reporter had similar concerns about the threatening nature of the CNN piece.
Another editor toned down the section’s title, removing the word “blackmail” and changing it to “Redditor non-identification controversy”. Following a brief dispute it was changed to “Redditor controversy,” based on arguments that reliable sources did not give the blackmail concerns any credence. Far from reflecting the public outrage at CNN over blackmailing and threatening to dox a Redditor, the resulting section instead was limited to “criticism” from reporters and CNN’s own commentators, who argued that by not carrying out their threat, the network didn’t go far enough.
It was not the only CNN controversy that year buried in this manner. An article on the undercover CNN videos released by James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas was nominated for deletion by Bushmann citing the same policy cited for removing the CNN blackmail page. Many of the same editors pushing for getting rid of that article appeared there as well. Only one adopted a different position, suggesting the article only be kept until an article existed for Project Veritas. Unlike the blackmail controversy, when material about the videos was added to the “CNN controversies” article it was removed by Objective3000 claiming it was “Not a CNN controversy.”
When an editor contested the exclusion of the O’Keefe material in early August and tried to restore material gutted from the article, the same editors not only rejected his position but doubled down. Nearly 5,000 bytes of additional material was removed , including material that criticized CNN downplaying suppression of Bahraini Arab Spring protests, though some of this material was restored . One editor, backed by Objective3000, removed the trimmed Kathy Griffin section altogether stating it wasn’t a CNN controversy. The editor who objected to these deletions was later banned after contesting unsourced negative material about Trump adviser Stephen Miller.
Attention from science fiction author Vox Day and Breitbart News rekindled the dispute several times in subsequent months. In the latter case, after Breitbart’s reporting referenced the dispute a further tenth of the remaining article was removed despite much of the material citing reliable sources and it was tagged suggesting further removals were necessary, which prompted an edit war. Objection to continued removal cited a restriction on the page requiring consensus when edits are reverted. However, a member of the site’s Arbitration Committee, who had previously pushed a leftist agenda on the Antifa article, persuaded the admin who imposed this restriction to remove it and the content was deleted again.
Since then, other controversies have also been removed or kept out of the article. Incidents removed include ones such as CNN falsely reporting Trump’s then-lawyer Michael Cohen was planning to testify Trump knew of a meeting his son had at Trump Tower in New York City about alleged information a Russian prosecutor claimed to have about Hillary Clinton and another incident where CNN claimed a CIA operative had to be pulled from Russia out of concerns Trump was mishandling intelligence.
CNN’s dearth of coverage during the 2020 Presidential campaign about sexual assault accusations against Joe Biden, even when those allegations appeared to initially have been made on CNN itself in a 1993 episode of Larry King Live, were also removed. Editors argued the material mainly cited Fox News and that criticism from a competitor wouldn’t make it a “controversy” or warrant inclusion, though a subsequent discussion ruled CNN could be used as a source for negative claims on the page for Fox News itself
A two-paragraph section about a controversial episode of CNN series Believer in which host Reza Aslan engaged in ritualistic cannibalism was also removed as “undue” despite extensively citing international coverage. Mention of CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin’s firing from the New Yorker after masturbating during a Zoom video call was added this month and quickly removed, claiming it was not a controversy for either outlet.
Major controversies involving CNN remain absent from the article, such as the outlet’s false coverage of the Covington students, which was only once mentioned on the page before being removed within minutes. Although CNN eventually settled a defamation suit with Covington student Nick Sandmann, there has been no effort to mention this in the “controversies” page, let alone on the outlet’s main page. Only major controversies added to the page since the widespread censoring have been criticism of former host Lou Dobbs over his coverage of questions about President Barack Obama’s eligibility for the Presidency and alleged bias against far-left 2020 Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.
Unlike CNN, conservative media outlets have been subject to numerous smear campaigns. The page for CNN competitor Fox News had extensive mention of controversies and criticism on its page shortly after Trump’s election, but the content expanded to take up nearly half the article, mostly due to efforts by editor “Snooganssnoogans” who was previously lightly sanctioned for anti-conservative editing and been involved in smears against Fox News hosts Mark Levin and Tucker Carlson. Breitbart has also been subject to repeated smears, which have consequently been spread by Facebook tags on Breitbart links. In contrast, while a small section once mentioned controversies about CNN on its main page, repeated removals eventually got any mention of controversies at the network excised entirely.
Such a difference in treatment extends to assessments under the site’s policies on “verifiability” and “reliable” sources. After Breitbart was banned from use as a source in 2018, some editors immediately suggested targeting Fox News. Eventually, a discussion earlier this year got Fox formally discouraged from use as a source for political content. When editors attempted to apply the same standard to CNN and fellow Fox competitor MSNBC, the discussions were shut down within a day just as editors began presenting evidence in support of downgrading the outlets. An administrator with special privileges on the site who pushed for action against Fox News and was previously sanctioned for abusing his privileges to further his agenda, was involved in shutting down both discussions.
Incidents such as the censoring of CNN controversies and rapid efforts to shut down discussions about its reliability highlight years-long concerns about left-wing bias on Wikipedia. Earlier this year, the site’s own co-founder argued the site’s neutrality policy was “dead” because of left-wing bias and numerous studies and analyses have identified such a bias on the site.
(Note: This piece is derived and updated from an earlier article published at Medium on November 20th, 2017)
(Disclosure: The author has been involved in disputes with several of the parties mentioned in the article)
T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.