The White House doubled down on the “fake news” narrative Tuesday in response to fresh accusations of bias at CNN as tensions between the Trump administration and establishment press hit what may be an all-time high.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders had an explosive exchange with a reporter during an on-camera press briefing after she decried “the explosive barrage of fake news directed at this president.”
She pointed to the release of an undercover video Tuesday by Project Veritas showing a CNN supervising producer admitting that the network had pushed the “bulls—” Russian election meddling in order to juice ratings.
“I think if it is accurate, I think it’s a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism,” Mrs. Sanders said. “I think that we have gone to a place where if the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America.”
Pushing back was Montgomery County [Maryland] Sentinel Executive Editor Brian Karem, who accused Mrs. Sanders of “inflaming everybody” by denigrating journalists who are only trying to do their job, which she denied.
“First of all, I think if anything has been inflamed, it’s the dishonesty that often takes place by the news media,” Mrs. Sanders said. “And I think it is outrageous for you to accuse me of inflaming a story when I was simply trying to respond to [a reporter’s] question.”
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CNN’s Jim Acosta later took to Twitter to criticize the Trump administration press shop, in part for taking a question from the Breitbart news network.
“Does this feel like America? Where the White House takes q’s from conservatives, then openly trashes the news media in the briefing room,” Mr. Acosta said on Twitter.
The open feuding erupted after back-to-back controversies involving CNN prompted accusations of media bias against a network already blamed for having its thumb on the scale for the anti-Trump opposition.
For CNN, the timing of the Project Veritas release could not have been worse. On Monday, the network said three staffers resigned over a now-retracted story linking a Trump transition team member to the Senate investigation into Russian interference. According to the New York Post, the three were fired amid lawsuit threats.
CNN deleted the story and apologized to the Trump ally, financier Anthony Scaramucci, who commended the network for doing the right thing.
BuzzFeed posted an internal CNN memo dated Saturday laying out stricter rules on its Russia coverage from CNNMoney Executive Editor Rich Barbieri, who told staffers not to publish “any content involving Russia” without checking with him or another editor first.
Then came the hidden-camera footage featuring CNN producer John Bonifield, who described the Russia coverage as “mostly bullsh—” and admitting that Mr. Trump was “probably right to say, look, you are witch-hunting me. You have no smoking gun, you have no real proof.”
Asked in the tape why CNN had pushed the story about Russian election interference, Mr. Bonifield replied, “Because it’s ratings. Our ratings are incredible right now.”
Mr. Trump promptly took to Twitter to blast CNN, saying the Project Veritas video “caught Fake News CNN cold.”
Donald Trump Jr. urged people in a tweet to watch the footage, saying CNN’s claims of being “real news” are “obviously a lie.”
The network responded Tuesday by moving to distance Mr. Bonifield from its political coverage. It described him as a medical producer and said his views illustrate the network’s diversity.
“CNN stands by our medical producer John Bonifield,” said the statement. “Diversity of personal opinion is what makes CNN strong, we welcome it and embrace it.”
Tom Bettag, a visiting fellow at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, said news outlets need to be careful to examine the motivations behind their coverage.
“I think there’s a real danger and that people have to look at themselves very carefully and say, ‘Are we being driven by the ratings, which clearly have been good because of that, or is this honest journalism?’ ” said Mr. Bettag, who spent 14 years as executive producer for ABC News’ “Nightline.”
CNN has been hardly alone in its focus on Russia. A study released Tuesday by the Media Research Center found that the coverage of the Russia probe involving former FBI Director James B. Comey represented 55 percent of the news stories from May 17 to June 20 aired by ABC, CBS and NBC.
Even so, Mr. Bettag said, the three major networks haven’t enjoyed the same ratings bump as have cable networks such as CNN and MSNBC.
On the video, Mr. Bonifield said the emphasis on Russia came from the top. He relayed that his “boss” told him that CNN Worldwide CEO Jeff Zucker had directed the network to “get back to Russia” after its coverage of the Paris climate agreement.
“So even with the climate accords, he was like, OK, a day or so, but we’re moving back to Russia,” Mr. Bonifield said.
If the goal was to improve ratings, CNN was successful. Even though Mr. Trump said on Twitter that CNN’s ratings are “way down,” the network countered by pointing to its record-breaking second-quarter viewership.
Project Veritas responded that “of course ratings are high” and accused Mr. Zucker of pushing the Russia narrative to attract viewers.
“They’re feeding their audience a false narrative in order to get ratings,” said Project Veritas President James O’Keefe.
Mr. Bonifield, identified as a 15-year CNN employee, also referred to a double standard with the network’s coverage of Mr. Trump versus President Obama.
“I think there are a lot of liberal CNN viewers who want to see Trump really get scrutinized,” Mr. Bonifield said on the hidden-camera video.
“And I think if we would have behaved that way with President Obama, and scrutinized everything that he was doing with as much scrutiny as we applied to Donald Trump, I think our viewers would have been turned off,” he said. “I think they would have felt like we were attacking him.”
The video is the first installment of a series by Project Veritas called “American Pravda” aimed at providing a behind-the-scenes look at the news industry.