Debate: Did CNN blackmail the redditor who created Trump’s media-punching GIF?

One hot-button issue. Two opposing views. Three rounds of fiery debate. This is Actually.

President Donald Trump set off a firestorm of criticism among liberals and journalists on Sunday when he tweeted out a doctored video of a years-old appearance on WrestleMania in which it appeared that he had tackled and punched a man with the CNN logo in place of his face.

In the aftermath, Reddit user HanAssholeSolo took credit for the video, only to see his history on the site become the subject of media coverage, detailing his various racial, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynist comments. (He may have not been the immediate source for the file used in the president’s tweet, however.)

CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski went one step further and tracked down the man behind the Reddit account. Upon being contacted by Kaczynski for confirmation, the man in question reportedly deleted his entire Reddit history, save for a long apology for trolling (which was subsequently removed by moderators); he then gave Kaczynski an interview. CNN opted against publishing the redditor’s name, but in explaining their reasons for not publishing it, Kaczynski wrote the following: 

CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name 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. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same. 

Many people saw Kaczynski’s statement as a threat to the man in question, and the piece ignited yet another firestorm — but this time, it was conservatives (and Wikileaks’ Julian Assange) who were outraged. The hashtag #CNNBlackmail even trended on Twitter, as Kaczynski defended his story and CNN denied in a statement that the man had been blackmailed or coerced.

Mic asked two writers to debate whether Kaczynski and CNN were in the right, or whether his writing has been misinterpreted. They were each allotted 30 minutes and 200 words to state and argue their respective cases for each in a total of three rounds. 

At the end, you get to vote on the winner.

Mary Chastain

Mary Chastain is an editor and writer for Legal Insurrection and a contributor to The Hill. She likes to concentrate on international news, especially in Ukraine, as well as Illinois politics.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, a business columnist for Hearst Newspapers, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report.

Let’s get ready to ruuuuuuumble!

Round 1 — Opening Arguments

Mary Chastain: In all honesty, I wouldn’t have much of a problem with this if it wasn’t for that last line [in Kaczynski’s CNN piece]. What right does a news organization have to threaten a private citizen? Kaczynski knows who this person is — a person who obviously wants to be anonymous. Basically, Kaczynski is saying that the network will be watching this guy to make sure he does not step out of line. And if he does anything that CNN deems as going against these “terms” they will expose him. He has to watch his moves on the internet now.

When did CNN become this person’s mother? Did he break a law?

But what does it say about a massive news organization that gets all uptight over a stupid meme/GIF? Talk about thin skin. Does this mean CNN will go after anyone who portrays them in such a negative light?

Anonymous people have made awful memes and photoshopped pictures of my daughters. As much as it upset me, I didn’t hunt down these trolls. Instead I brushed it off and decided not to waste my time and not post many pictures of them.

John Stoehr: Many things have been revealed to me since Donald Trump’s surprise election, but among the most surprising has been the number of smart, savvy and sophisticated people who consume journalism on a daily basis who do not really understand how journalism tends to work. Because of this confusion (or misunderstanding) of how journalism works, there is ample opportunity for some to critique, fairly and unfairly, those of us who practice the craft of journalism. 

I can see why Mary would suggest Kaczynski was going after a critic of CNN. It really does look that way. And perhaps he is. But I think of it in terms of journalism. He was following a major story that happened to be about his employer; that’s what any reporter would do. Kaczynski’s forte just happens to be digging around in places like Reddit, where most reporters don’t want to dig around.

As for the last line: Yes, it looks threatening. But it’s also an open-ended statement allowing for the development of news as it happens. The presumption is this is the end of the story, but Kaczynski doesn’t want to box himself in if the story changes. 

Round 2 — Rebuttal

Mary Chastain: I used to work at Breitbart. The five years I wrote there, we received intense attention, but I cannot recall a single time I felt the need to dig into anyone who made an awful meme that mocked us or Andrew [Breitbart, the site’s founder, who passed away in 2012]. It feels childish to concentrate on a stupid meme while bigger news is happening.

I’m pretty sure this is not the first time someone made a meme or GIF that mocks CNN. It just so happens that Trump tweeted it out. But so what that Trump did? Why go after this guy who dwells on Reddit? It’s not like he made it for Trump and sent it to him. It’s not like Trump sought out this guy and asked him to make it. For what we know, this person had no idea Trump would tweet it out. Why bring him into it at all when he did nothing wrong?

It scares me that this person’s apology reads like a hostage note and that Kaczynski worded the last sentence like a threat. I thought we’d only have to fear the NSA watching us.

John Stoehr: All news outlets are targets: Even small newspapers like the Savannah Morning News, where I worked ages ago, are targets. This is the burden we all share. America is full of crazies. The significance [of being targeted], however, depends on the circumstances and on the political dynamics from which those circumstances spring. 

In this case, Kaczynski was entirely justified in seeking out the creator of that meme video. One, because that is Kaczynski’s speciality: He and his team exist to comb through piles of arcana that no one else wants to comb through. And two, because CNN is at the center of a national debate about power and constitutional freedoms.

All that said, the creator’s letter is penitent in a way that suggests coercion. But because Kaczynski’s action appear legitimate, too, I don’t have reason to suspect anything less than good faith on his part and on the meme creator’s part. Perhaps [the meme creator] really is sorry, and perhaps he really wants to change. We shouldn’t be so cynical as to close the door to that possibility.

In any case, Kaczynski can’t make him sound less idiotic.

Round 3 — Closing Thoughts

Mary Chastain: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Instead of acting all whiny over a meme — which is something Trump would do — why couldn’t CNN be the bigger person? Just ignore the stupid meme and actually cover something newsworthy. Honestly, if they would have brushed it aside, the story would have died.

But now this has kept it in the news and just makes CNN look like a bully, which is something they have often accused Trump of being. If anything, this situation has given more juice to Trump supporters who hate the media and to people like me, who never supported Trump but distrust the media, to distrust CNN even more.

It’s a shame, because I like CNN more than I like Fox and MSNBC. I have close friends there. I hate to see them take a hit like this, but it’s so childish to go after someone who said he made a meme — though Kaczynski may have gone after the wrong guy — and obviously did not think the president would tweet it out. 

John Stoehr: I have heard this argument before: If reporters would stop paying attention to something, then that something, whatever it is, would eventually go away. Maybe that’s the case sometimes, but I have serious doubts that that’s the case here.

The president of the United States has described CNN and other media organizations as “the enemy of the people.” Would this story have gone away on its own in that kind of context? I don’t think so. 

I also find curious the idea that the media should go high while the president is allowed to go low. No one can stop the president. Is it better to stop the media? That’s a bit like killing the message by killing the messenger. Conservatives have been attacking the media for four decades. CNN was damned if it did and if it didn’t.

While I fear the public’s trust in journalism will continue to erode as long as Trump is president, there are signs of hope. According to a recent SurveyMonkey poll, more people trust CNN than the president by seven points.

This concludes this Actually. Please take a moment to vote for the writer who you think made the more compelling argument.