Fear and Loathing

High Anxiety at CNN Amid Attacks From Trump and His Trolls

CNN staff fear for their safety as President Trump's supporters threaten them and their families. In Poland, Trump continued to ratchet up his rhetoric against the network.

Sarah Rogers / The Daily Beast

It’s a sign of the anxious, fractious times that CNN’s Chris Cuomo, who’d just finished anchoring his New Day program Thursday morning, was ambushed by a camera-toting alt-right activist as he left the network’s headquarters at Manhattan’s Time Warner Center.

Rebel TV operative Laura Loomer, a veteran of Donald Trump-loving sting artist James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, confronted Cuomo on the sidewalk concerning CNN’s online report this week on the anonymous Reddit user who was original source of President Trump’s wrestling video retweet (in which the CNN logo replaced WWE impresario Vince McMahon’s head in a GIF showing the pre-presidential Trump body-slamming and pummeling his victim).

‪@ChrisCuomo just slammed the door of his fancy black service car on me when I asked him if he thinks ‪@CNN memes are free speech,” Loomer complained on Twitter. “Video soon,” she added. (The video showed Cuomo calmly and politely fielding Loomer’s accusatory questions before getting into the back seat of his hired SUV.)

Loomer is also recently infamous as one of those protesters who disrupted performances of the Public Theater's Trump-themed staging of Julius Caesar in New York's Central Park.

Cuomo was unavailable for comment, although in Thursday’s New York Times, with perhaps more prescience than he imagined, he described his job this way: “I’m comfortable going to work in Thunderdome every day.”

Maybe the pugnacious Cuomo is comfortable, but others at the cable network are increasingly apprehensive about death threats and other harassing messages targeting on-air anchors and top executives being sent on social media and harassing phone calls.

The parents and wife of Andrew Kaczynski, author of the GIF story and leader of CNN’s investigative K-File team, had received around 50 harassing phone calls each by Wednesday while other K-File team members had ugly messages—apparently from Trump supporters—left at their homes. 

“The only thing I worry about is somebody getting hurt,” a CNN insider told The Daily Beast, speaking on condition of anonymity because this person is not authorized to discuss internal network operations. “These far-right trolls are really threatening people and coming after people. Somebody’s gonna do something stupid at some point.

“People really, really worry about the safety of all the prominent people who represent us on the air, and the people who are breaking news they don’t like, or people in senior management…I fear for all of them.”

At a breakfast for media reporters last month, CNN World President Jeff Zucker confirmed that the physical safety of CNN staffers “is an incredibly serious issue.”

“The rhetoric and threats that our folks are subjected to on a daily basis is much more serious than I think anybody would realize and I and we are are incredibly concerned,” Zucker said, noting that there has been “a tremendous rise” in such incidents in recent months.

He added: “This is what happens when you try to delegitimize an institution that is doing its job. And I think it is shameful on the part of the administration and other politicians to cause a frenzy against something that is guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States. It does a disservice to this country and its position in the world…It’s unconscionable and dangerous—and they should know better.”

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On Thursday Zucker told the New York Times regarding the Trump-inspired attacks: “My job is to remind everyone that they need to stay focused doing their job. He’s trying to bully us, and we’re not going to let him intimidate us. You can’t lose your confidence and let that change the way you conduct yourselves.”

Yet there is also widespread nervousness at CNN, whether justified or not, concerning Zucker’s future after parent company Time Warner’s pending merger with telecom giant AT&T.

“Jeff leads very well—he’s always in the morning meetings urging people on,” said the CNN insider. “But I think there’s a general feeling of anxiety, as you’d expect, about whether or not this [the pending merger] is going to force any change.”

A recent story in the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, headlined “CNN boss in crosshairs if AT&T-Time Warner merger approved,” claimed that Zucker was bad fit for the AT&T corporate culture and could be “unceremoniously dumped” or “kick[ed]…upstairs with a corporate title that strips him of any power over CNN.”

A third possibility cited in the thinly sourced report: “sale of the network that would let AT&T wash its hands of any future messes.”

An emailed question to the Justice Department anti-trust division, which is expected to rule on the merger soon—“To what extent will the president’s and his supporter's problems with CNN influence the anti-trust division's ruling on the AT&T-Time Warner merger?”--did not receive a response by deadline.

Kaczynski’s K-File story included an interview with its anonymous creator, prompting the popular alt-right hashtag #CNNBlackMail because the story said CNN kept his identity private because he’d apologized, but reserved the right to name the man if circumstances changed—is simply the latest target of opportunity for CNN’s enemies.

They have capitalized on recent missteps to savage the network—gloating triumphantly when CNN accepted the resignations in late June of three of its journalists and retracted a poorly sourced, badly vetted online story alleging connections between a Russian Bank and a Trump transition official.

There has been a great deal of second-guessing Zucker’s decision to dismiss the erring reporters and editors, one of them Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Lichtblau, a veteran investigative New York Times sleuth.

If the network expected to be praised by its detractors for displaying sterling journalistic standards and zero tolerance for sloppiness, CNN instead absorbed a fusillade of condemnation from Trump and his acolytes.

In a column by Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan, Lichtblau’s former Times colleague James Risen called the dismissals “a cowardly, panicked movie” proving that CNN’s execs were “easily intimidated by Trump.”

The outlet’s enemies include not only the Leader of the Free World, who doubled down on his persistent “fake news” and “dishonest” insults Thursday morning during a press conference in Poland (answering a question posed by Trump-friendly Daily Mail reporter David Martosko), but also Trump’s troll army on Twitter and Reddit.

Then there what looks like a strategic alliance with media baron Rupert Murdoch, who reportedly speaks to the president almost daily and whose Fox News Channel has been waging a relentless war against its cable news rival, giving CNN the sort of negative coverage normally reserved for North Korean missile launches.

“Basically you have the Murdochs and the Trump administration—one of the most powerful media families in the world and the most powerful man in the world—trying to screw CNN,” said an employee of the Time Warner-owned cable outlet a couple of hours after the president himself trashed CNN during the brief press conference in Warsaw, provoking CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta to brand the occasion “a fake news conference.”

“You know they have some pretty serious problems,” Trump declared, taking a virtually unprecedented step for an American president on foreign soil to attack an institution whose free-speech rights are enshrined by the First Amendment. “They’ve been fake news for a long time. They’ve been covering me in a very dishonest way…What we want is beautiful, free, and honest press. We don’t want fake news.”

A second CNN insider said: “It’s obviously much more of a concerted campaign with the president and his supporters trying to destroy a news organization. Everybody knew this was coming. They’ll be trying to destroy other news organizations as well. It’s just our turn.”