CNN swept aside journalistic ethics on Sunday by endorsing a blacklisting campaign with a glowing interview of Matt Rivitz, the founder of Sleeping Giants, a failed effort to censor Breitbart News by harassing and intimidating companies whose advertisements may (or may not) have appeared on the website.
The interview took place on Reliable Sources, a Sunday morning show that once focused on analyzing the media, but which in recent years has been turned into the editorial mouthpiece of CNN president Jeff Zucker, voiced through host Brian Stelter.
Sunday’s program was helmed by substitute anchor John Avlon, in for Stelter — who had earlier used his vacation to dodge questions about CNN’s failure to retract a false story about President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Ironically, Avlon and Reliable Sources addressed the Cohen story without acknowledging that CNN had lied about the fact that Lanny Davis had been one of its sources. Avlon’s panel slammed Davis for “backtracking” on his version of events, then quickly shifted to talking about threats made against the Boston Globe.
Nor did CNN mention the fact that last week, a Mexican cartel boss was arrested two days after putting a $100,000 hit on a Breitbart News reporter — a story that, had it happened to a CNN reporter, would no doubt have been the lead, not just on CNN, but on every mainstream media outlet in the country.
In the midst of a nationwide debate about whether, and how, social media companies are censoring and eliminating conservatives, a practice they euphemistically call “de-platforming,” CNN weighed in clearly on the side of that censorship, offering Rivitz an interview unchallenged by any opposing points of view.
In a revealing breach of journalistic ethics, CNN did not invite a representative of Breitbart to counter Rivitz’s claims, nor did CNN approach Breitbart for comment until after the show — as they planned a follow-up article based on their own flawed reporting.
Avlon proceeded from the false premise that Sleeping Giants’ censorship effort was working, claiming in his introduction to Rivitz that Breitbart had “seen a steady decline of visitors and views since December of 2017.” In fact, our traffic has risen steadily for the last several months, including a 20% increase in unique readers from July to August. Breitbart News is currently ranked #62 among all websites in the United States, according to Alexa. But CNN viewers could not know that, because no one from Breitbart was invited to challenge the false information that was presented.
In the interview, Avlon tossed one softball question after another to Rivitz. At one point, he appeared to endorse Rivitz’s goal, asking: “What do you envision as a more sustainable solution — is it ‘white-listing’ quality news sites? Is it ‘blacklisting’ outliers that mainstream advertisers might not want to support? What do you think is a more sustainable solution for this problem that you’re trying to fix?”
Avlon only asked one critical question, about whether Sleeping Giants’ tactics amounted to “a slippery slope of soft power that ends up being a form of censorship where activist communities on the right and left simply harass sites they don’t like.” Avlon did not provide any similar examples of conservative activists harassing left-wing websites, nor did he question Rivitz’s defense, which is that he and his cohort of left-wing activists have “tried to keep things really polite” in harassing and intimidating businesses with whom they have no actual relationship.
During the interview, CNN helped Rivitz make his case by presenting a graphic with five supposedly bigoted Breitbart headlines. Four of the five were opinion pieces; three of those four were written by a self-declared provacateur to provoke discussion.
The fifth was a 100% factually correct piece of investigative journalism written by this author: “The Vetting – Exclusive – Obama’s Literary Agent in 1991 Booklet: ‘Born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii’.” The article documented the fact that Barack Obama’s literary agent had promoted him in 1991 using a false biography that may have been the origin of the false Birther conspiracy theory. The article even included a disclaimer from Breitbart News’ management rejecting Birtherism (original emphasis): “Andrew Breitbart was never a ‘Birther,’ and Breitbart News is a site that has never advocated the narrative of ‘Birtherism.’ In fact, Andrew believed, as we do, that President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961.”
When the story — which took months of research — was published in 2012, Obama’s literary agent acknowledged the mistake, attributing it to “fact checking error.” It was covered widely in the mainstream media, adding a new layer to Obama’s many “composite” biographies. There was nothing about the story that had anything to do with race: it was purely news.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.