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2017-06-27 21:00:02
A Costly Retraction for CNN and an Opening for Trump

In CNN’s newsroom, it is called the Triad: a three-pronged internal system designed to ensure that sensitive reporting by the network’s journalists is unimpeachable before it runs.

Last week, the Triad fell short — and by Tuesday, the consequences were being felt across the news industry and in the hallways of the White House.

CNN was forced to apologize after retracting a story on its website that a Russian bank linked to a close ally of President Trump was under Senate investigation. Three high-ranking journalists at the network resigned.

But the mea culpa did not stop Mr. Trump and his supporters from seizing on the mistake, condemning CNN and claiming it as evidence that other major news organizations were conspiring against the administration. On Twitter, Mr. Trump wrote that “they caught Fake News CNN cold” and asked, “What about all the other phony stories they do?”

By the afternoon, Mr. Trump’s deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was on live television scolding the White House press corps over the retraction, even urging Americans to watch a video filmed by a controversial right-wing activist, James O’Keefe, that showed a low-level CNN producer criticizing his network.

“Whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know, but I would encourage everybody in this room and, frankly, everybody across the country to take a look at it,” Ms. Sanders said of the video.

News organizations regularly issue corrections and, in rarer instances, retract a story. Other journalists on Tuesday praised CNN for taking responsibility after a painful black eye.

But the ferocious response on Tuesday was a reminder of CNN’s unique role as a nemesis for Mr. Trump, who says the network has unfairly tried to tie him to Russian interference in last year’s election — and underlined the heightened tensions between the news media and an administration that has curtailed access and labeled the news media an “opposition party.”

“People are trying to attack us, trying to take us down,” CNN’s president, Jeffrey A. Zucker, said in a newsroom conference call on Tuesday morning, according to a network employee who listened to the call and was granted anonymity to describe private remarks.

“Our reputation is everything; that is our currency, and that’s why we have processes in place,” Mr. Zucker said, according to the employee. He added, “If you don’t follow those procedures, you don’t work here, period.”

Those procedures broke down last week, according to several people at CNN who, in speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, recounted a scramble inside the network after the story was published last Thursday.

The article, written by the veteran reporter Thomas Frank, linked Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge-fund manager and Trump confidant, to a Russian investment fund supposedly being investigated by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The reporting was attributed to an anonymous source.

The Triad system should have kicked into gear, with reviews by lawyers, a standards-and-practices division, and an editorial team known collectively as the Row, which checks facts and approves anonymous sources. (The system is so ingrained that CNN journalists often use the term as a verb: as in, has the story been “rowed”?)

But several network officials were caught off-guard when the story appeared online, the people said, signaling that it had not received the proper approvals.

CNN has not specified what, if anything, in the story was untrue, only saying that the piece did not meet its editorial standards. On Tuesday, the network declined to explain the exact nature of how its procedures went awry.

The mistake came at a sensitive time. Like other news channels, CNN’s ratings are up compared with last year, but on weeknights, the network has fallen behind its rivals Fox News and MSNBC in prime time. In the past month, CNN cut ties with the broadcast personalities Kathy Griffin and Reza Aslan after they publicly assailed Mr. Trump in vulgar ways.

Among newsroom executives, however, the big concern was a bungled story earlier in June, which incorrectly predicted the congressional testimony of James B. Comey, former F.B.I. director. Mr. Zucker was deeply upset about the error and the ensuing correction, and made clear to his staff that the network would not tolerate mistakes amid such intense public scrutiny.

The zero-tolerance atmosphere made last week’s mistake all the more glaring. Mr. Zucker began an investigation as right-wing outlets like Breitbart News began to note problems in CNN’s reporting. Mr. Scaramucci contacted CNN executives to dispute the story and said that he was considering legal action, according to a person familiar with his conversations who spoke on condition of anonymity.

By Monday morning, Mr. Frank and two editors who worked on the piece, Lex Haris and Eric Lichtblau, had submitted their resignations. The men were key players in CNN’s beefed-up investigative unit, part of a highly acclaimed push by Mr. Zucker to expand the network’s original reporting on politics and national security in the Trump era.

Mr. Lichtblau, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter hired by CNN in April from The New York Times, also worked on the Comey story earlier this month. Neither he nor Mr. Haris responded to requests for comment on Tuesday; Mr. Frank could not be reached.

“There have been so many attempts from so many quarters to decertify the press,” Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, said on Tuesday. “The best thing that a news organization could do is to constantly revisit its standards and practices and constantly review the level of performance.”

Mr. Trump appeared less sympathetic to that argument. In a series of Twitter posts on Tuesday, he insulted CNN’s ratings; denounced other news organizations, including The Times, as “Fake News”; and reposted a fan’s reworking of the CNN logo as “FNN: Fake News Network.”

On social media, Mr. Trump’s supporters gloated over CNN’s error, calling it proof of bias. At the White House, Ms. Sanders cited the video by Mr. O’Keefe, saying, “If it is accurate, I think it’s a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism.” Mr. O’Keefe is known for an undercover video that damaged the reputation of the community organizing group Acorn, but he has been shown to selectively edit footage to disparage his subjects.

One reporter, Brian Karem of The Sentinel newspapers in Maryland, objected, telling Ms. Sanders, “What you just did is inflammatory to people all over the country who look at it and say, ‘See, once again, the president’s right, and everybody else out here is fake media.’”

Ms. Sanders did not flinch. “If anything has been inflamed, it’s the dishonesty that often takes place by the news media,” she said before moving on to the next question.