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Trump Has Bullied CNN to Its Breaking Point

After the president tweeted a “threatening” ‘WrestleMania’ GIF, the news site made the strange decision to publish a story tracking down the Redditor behind the image. But why?

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

On Tuesday, CNN’s website published an account of how its politics team tracked down a Trump supporter and called him to account for his creation of a WrestleMania GIF, which features the CNN logo pasted over Vince McMahon’s head as a hostile joke at CNN’s expense. Within 24 hours, this odd little exposé erupted into a controversy as conservative spectators, who accuse CNN of blackmailing its subject, have organized a concerted harassment campaign against the network and its story’s lead reporter. As always, this modern political tragedy begins with a tweet from Donald Trump.

On Sunday morning, @realDonaldTrump shared a video of a GIF of himself choke-slamming and punching Vince McMahon ringside at WrestleMania 23. In the GIF, McMahon’s face is pasted over with a floating CNN logo, and Trump’s tweet appends two hashtags: #FraudNewsCNN #FNN (that would be Fake News Network — zing). There’s no real joke here, only a grainy spectacle: Watch the big, manly President Trump beat his latest challenger to the brink of paralysis.

(It is unclear which bit of CNN coverage, exactly, Trump was even responding to in this case. With a long holiday weekend approaching, and his Morning Joe feud behind him, it’s possible the U.S. president was simply bored and itching for a new, pointless fight.)

CNN took the WrestleMania footage seriously. “It is a sad day when the president of the United States encourages violence against reporters,” the network said in a statement. “He is involved in juvenile behavior far below the dignity of his office.” Other observers, including fellow journalists, also interpreted Trump’s disseminating of the WrestleMania GIF as a call for enraged citizens to maim CNN journalists and, presumably, other reporters critical of the administration. Hours after Trump tweeted the choke-slam GIF, the Committee to Protect Journalists said the meme “undermines the work of the media in the U.S. and makes it more dangerous.”

In haste over the holiday weekend, CNN dispatched its political investigations unit, KFile — named after the unit’s star reporter, Andrew Kaczynski — to cover the offending GIF’s origins. The team quickly ventured into the hive of scum and consumer product reviews known as (you guessed it) Reddit. The KFile team identified a user named HanAssholeSolo as the GIF maker. Per KFile’s report, HanAssholeSolo has a history of reactionary “shitposting” on Reddit, where he scrubbed several offensive posts and published a long apology for his conduct before speaking to KFile for its story.

In its exposé, KFile withholds the GIF maker’s name only because “he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again.” Imagine a furious mom grounding her teen son for a week without TV and video games: That’s how this sounds. In fact, Kaczynski spent much of Wednesday on Twitter clarifying that his subject wasn’t a teenager but rather “a middle aged man.”

It’s a bewildering spin of events: A Reddit user makes a pro-Trump meme. Trump finds it, and then he shares it with the wider world. Journalists and other critics of the administration interpret the tweet as a call to violence against reporters, who’ve been on edge since now–U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte body-slammed a Guardian reporter at a Montana special election campaign event in May. CNN tracks the Reddit user down and promises him anonymity assuming he’ll cease and desist his shitposting. Regardless, Trump supporters rally to accuse CNN of doxxing a man whose identity the network has made a big to-do of not revealing. For CNN, the moral high ground has quickly become a quagmire.

In a year when cable-news networks have struggled to maintain their access-driven relevance, it’s unsurprising that KFile’s most-discussed political story in months has scrutinized a particularly vocal Trump supporter rather than the administration itself. The network and website’s insistence on both reporting — and then defending — a Reddit-focused story might have made more sense for a tech-focused outlet like Gizmodo. But in the absence of a nominally cooperative — or even accessible — administration, CNN has struggled to execute any civic purpose whatsoever. Its peculiar approach to the WrestleMania GIF maker reveals a network deeply frustrated with its role as Donald Trump’s choice whipping boy.

Andrew Kaczynski made a name for himself as a web sleuth during his nearly five years at BuzzFeed, typically poring over old footage of politicians to find fresh angles of critique. Often, he’s unearthed hints of plagiarism and damning evidence of political figures saying things they live to regret. In October, CNN hired the KFile team, including Kaczynski, away from BuzzFeed, promising to equip it with better resources and a cable-news audience. In January, the KFile team broke the academic plagiarism story that brought down the commentator Monica Crowley, who was expected to take on a senior communications role at the National Security Council. In May, KFile broke another academic plagiarism story that embroiled Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a conservative activist and once-rumored appointee to the Department of Homeland Security. While KFile can cite this handful of victories in holding the Trump administration to account, the team hasn’t been as prolific as it was at BuzzFeed during the recent presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, CNN has suffered a great deal of harassment from Donald Trump, who popularized the term “fake news” as a taunt initially designed to describe the network’s politics coverage. MSNBC may be the nation’s proud and avowed center-left cable-news network, but it’s the supposedly nonpartisan, gotta-hear-both-sides bastion at CNN that’s absorbing the full force of Trump’s disdain for all mainstream news media apart from Fox. Trump laid into the network’s president, Jeff Zucker, in a press gathering at Trump Tower in the weeks after the election. (At the time, Zucker called it “playful.”) He called Chris Cuomo a “lunatic.” He called Don Lemon “dumb as a rock.” And his online partisans have adopted Trump’s vendetta against CNN as their own. Currently, Kaczynski is suffering a personal harassment campaign, with pro-Trump instigators reportedly doxxing him and his family, sending death threats, and planning a protest at his residence. He’s only the latest CNN reporter to become the face of the Trump coalition’s crude resentments.

CNN has characterized Trump’s tweet as a call for violence, and the KFile story cites the Committee to Protect Journalists’ somber agreement with that assessment. And yet the GIF is one of a million lo-fi fever dreams of the Trumpian internet, and it won’t be the last to capture Trump’s “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL” attention during the heat stroke that is his term in office. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that forum trolls throw U.S. politics coverage for a loop. In the past decade, several journalists have reported thrilling stories about the politics and villainy of the deep web. Readers tend to value such deep and exhaustive reports for the cavities of ideology they reveal, and for what they tell us about contemporary civic life and discourse.

In contrast, CNN’s exposé was carried out against some foolish, insignificant bystander; and it reads like a parole order. The reporters spend as much as half of their story explaining just how easy it was for them to track HanAssholeSolo from Reddit to the material world, which, I suppose, is why so many Trump sympathizers interpret KFile’s report as a warning shot. The story is fascinating only for the fact that it exists at all: Trump’s White House has frustrated CNN and the rest of the press corps so effectively that the network is now throwing its sharpest blows at a shameful, unsavory nobody.

It is not surprising that CNN’s website would hone in on the Redditor as a merchant of vicious, stupid conflict. It is only surprising that they would pick such a loud but toothless fight with a shitposter whom they plumbed from the depths of the internet. The network’s willingness to totally expose a troll would be one thing if CNN were cracking its knuckles in the face of power. Instead, the network is humiliating a troll to find new footing in the president’s ritual humiliation of CNN.

On Wednesday, Jeff Zucker addressed this latest round of hostilities between his network and Trump following the president’s WrestleMania tweet. “He’s trying to bully us,” Zucker said. “You can’t lose your confidence and let that change the way you conduct yourselves.” But CNN has indeed revised its conduct under pressure. One false move from this Reddit reactionary, and CNN may, toward ambiguous ends, reveal his identity to the public. If, and when, the network ever does, I’m sure we’ll still have learned absolutely nothing.