The feud between Donald Trump and CNN reached new heights on Monday, as the network came back swinging against the president’s latest attacks, including that CNN International misrepresents the U.S. to its global audience.
According to sources at the network, Trump’s tweet over the weekend criticizing CNN International produced extra frustration and exasperation because of the inherent risks of overseas reporting and the feeling that his message imperiled journalists working in countries hostile to a free press.
During his Monday broadcast, anchor Wolf Blitzer responded to the president’s latest claims of “fake news,” saying, “CNN and CNN International are not sponsored by any state, nor any autocrat, nor any political organization, and despite the constant criticism from the president, we are unwavering in our mission, free and independent as the press should be.”
Blitzer’s statement followed a nearly five-minute package of clips depicting CNN International journalists reporting from dangerous situations, including under gunfire in Libya and on a helicopter fleeing ISIS in Iraq.
The segment was in response to a tweet Trump sent Saturday: “.@FoxNews is MUCH more important in the United States than CNN, but outside of the U.S., CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!”
The president also took to Twitter on Monday: “We should have a contest as to which of the Networks, plus CNN and not including Fox, is the most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted in its political coverage of your favorite President (me). They are all bad. Winner to receive the FAKE NEWS TROPHY!”
In addition to Blitzer’s piece, on Monday afternoon the network ran a lengthy segment with CNN International correspondents Clarissa Ward and Ben Wedeman, in which they discussed the president’s tweets and the dangers of overseas reporting. Ward said the president had sent the signal around the world that “it’s open season on journalists.”
Other hosts, including Brian Stelter and John Berman, have also addressed the issue.
Because of the frequency of Trump’s attacks on CNN, the network does not always officially respond to his provocations. But on Saturday, its PR account tweeted: “It’s not CNN’s job to represent the U.S to the world. That’s yours. Our job is to report the news. #FactsFirst.”
Explaining why the network used Twitter to fire back, a CNN source said, “Anything that jeopardizes the safety of our teams in the field is clearly something that we would feel very strongly about, and that’s why we reacted in that way.”
In response to Trump’s criticism of CNN International, reporter Christiane Amanpour posted on Twitter a picture of a late colleague. “If President Trump knew the facts,” she tweeted, “he would never have sent that tweet. Here is my (late) camerawoman Margaret Moth, who took a bullet in the face covering the facts and truth in Bosnia. #FactsFirst.”
Amanpour followed up via email on Monday.
“Fighting a free and independent press from the land of the free itself, turns the world on its head,” she said. “Without a free press there is no democracy. A cursory Google glance around our world will demonstrate that. This skirmish between the President and the Press is not a joke, this is fundamental.”
To be sure, since Trump began his war on the press, CNN has often delighted in playing the foil, devoting big chunks of airtime to its conflicts with the White House. Its much-ballyhooed current marketing campaign — “Facts First” — is a not-so-subtle direct response to Trump. And just as surely as the president has bashed CNN, the network’s ratings have gone up.
But according to Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Trump’s tweet about CNN International does present very real problems for reporters in dangerous situations.
“I think this reinforces a point that he’s made over and over, which is that he doesn’t really care about press freedom or the rights of journalists,” Simon said. “It doesn’t really concern him that journalists around the world are being murdered or imprisoned in record numbers. I think that it’s clear that if you’re a press-freedom violator, a press-freedom abuser, you’re not going to get any pushback from President Trump, and I think that undermines that ability of journalists all over the world to work safely and independently.”
Simon said the view of journalism expressed in that tweet by Trump — that the media should be representing its country abroad, not reporting impartially — aligns with the view many nondemocratic leaders have.
“To the extent that sentiment echoes the views of authoritarian leaders, it empowers them,” Simon said. “That authoritarian leaders who have policies that undermine and restrict press freedom don’t feel that their actions potentially undermine their relationships to the United States — that’s an important point of leverage that no longer exists.”
Lingering not far beneath the surface is Trump’s role in the proposed merger between AT&T and CNN’s parent company, Time Warner. A week ago, the Justice Department filed suit to stop the merger, amid speculation that the administration is trying to use the deal to force Time Warner to sell the network.
In Monday’s White House press briefing, a reporter cited Trump’s tweets and asked press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether the president had discussed the merger with Rupert Murdoch, the head of Fox News.
“Not that I’m aware of,” she said.
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