Journalism · lawyers · Leverage · Politics

CNN and the Streisand Effect – How Doing Something Because You Can is Often Something You Knew You Shouldn’t Have

Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park said a line that really stuck with me. It was to the effect that the scientists did something because they could but didn’t stop to consider whether or not they should.  Back 15 years ago or so, a conservationist documenting erosion along California beaches published aerial photographs of the coastline. One of the images included Barbra Streisand’s house on the cliffs of Malibu.

Fewer than ten people had seen the image.  Nevertheless, Barba Streisand instructed her legal counsel to send a cease and desist letter to remove the image from the website. The result was that more than 400,000 people downloaded the image within a month.  Not only was her privacy not protected, but the mere act of trying to prevent exposure resulted in massive exposure.  She did something because she could without thinking of whether or not they should.

What does CNN have to do with this?  A controversy has been stirred up over a statement that CNN was fully entitled to make, but that I see no legitimate journalistic reason why they should have said it.

In the past few days, CNN has faced intensifying scrutiny over journalistic standards. This is particularly with regard to American President Donald Trump, whose relationship with the network has been acrimonious, much like the core of the sun is hot and the gravity of a black hole is strong.  Following the resignations of CNN staff for falsifying a story, the President of the United States actually tweeted a gif of himself in a wrestling performance knocking down a character with “CNN” in the downed character’s face.

Say what you will about the POTUS doing what he did. CNN, demonstrating its investigative prowess, actually tracked down the identity of the creator of the meme.
How CNN found the Reddit user behind the Trump wrestling GIF

In a news story, CNN posted the following paragraph:

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.

This does indeed appear to be an example of an organization that is committed to doing no harm.  It is reporting facts and certainly the person’s identity is less important than the person’s actions.  Indeed, the prior paragraph took efforts to report that HanAssholeSolo was nervous about his safety and embarrassment should his identity be revealed.

It looked like reporting the facts, not providing more than is necessary, and securing the identity of a person.  All was well and good.  CNN found the guy who made the meme, displayed sensitivity toward his concerns of self-preservation, and acknowledged his apologies and statements of mea culpa.  All looked great for CNN until the next paragraph/sentence.

CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

Smug Self Destruction (Note: this is not a call for CNN or its employees to smash themselves under a boulder.)

CNN actually managed to have its investigative journalism about a newsworthy event transformed into a threat.  A “threat” is “a statement of an intention to inflict pain, injury, damage, or other hostile action on someone in retribution for something done or not done.” This appears to meet that definition.

Andrew Kaczynski, the author of the piece, tweeted last night:
“…It was intended only to mean we made no agreement w/the man about his identity.”

Kaczynski’s explanation may indeed be sincere.  While the wording of the sentence looked pretty clear, I know that journalists and editors are people, too, and we do tend to put things in ways that we do not intend.

The key question I have as someone who examines conflict, tries to solve it and tries to avoid it is, “Why the hell did you include that line in the first place?” it was not important to the story. It was not a part of journalism to flesh out facts.  It wasn’t even put out there as a journalistic disclosure, i.e., “Editorial note: there is no agreement between the subject and this organization regarding whether or not to reveal his identity.”

Exercise of Rights Comes with a Cost that is Part of the Calculus

This is what brings back to the Streisand Effect.  There is no question that Streisand had a right to petition for relief if she and her counsel thought that she was somehow damaged in a way that the Courts would entertain.  It doesn’t mean that exercise of legal rights isn’t really, really stupid at times.

Exercising legal rights comes with a cost.  I have a right to decline consent to a search of my vehicle here in the US. It may cost me some additional time if the police detain me to bring out a dog to sniff or otherwise attempt to obtain a warrant.  It is up to me which is more important. Streisand and her lawyers apparently failed to take pragmatism into consideration.  Yes, a cease and desist letter can be sent.  But what is the cost/benefit analysis?

Which leads to the line that CNN placed into the story about reserving the right to publish the guy’s name should he retract his apology, for example.  While there may be some potential benefit in explicitly reserving this right (I don’t know why they felt they had to do it, unless they worry that later publication could mean that the guy sues them on the basis that “you said you wouldn’t publish my name!”) the cost of the statement is fairly apparent to anyone reading it. Yes, it looks to my eyes that CNN issued a threat.

Why was it included?  I can only speculate, and I don’t want to do that.

Doesn’t CNN have a red team?  It seems pretty clear to me that even if some lawyer said, “just to be on the safe side, put something in there about how you don’t waive your rights” that the big picture should be viewed.  A run by the PR department.  Or how about even hiring someone who hates CNN to red team certain things like this.  “The lawyer says that there is a miniscule chance that we could get sued if we name him later. Red team says that if we put this statement out there we might be trending #1 on Twitter for all the wrong reasons.  They bring up Streisand.”

The did something because they could.  It’s being red teamed on social media right now. Learn the lesson: any more than necessary can be trouble.

A Note on Doxxing and Internet Mob Justice

Seriously, folks.  Lighten up.  What is the purpose of doxxing other than Schadenfreude? In most of these cases, petty mistakes or incidents of bad judgment are being used to attempt to destroy people’s lives for doing little more than doing something for which somebody takes offense.

There are reports that the reporter, editors of CNN, and others are being threatened to have their addresses, family names, etc., figured out and published.  Why?  So people can harass them.

Seriously, people.  These are humans.  They haven’t committed crimes (at least in most cases – I take no issue with figuring out the identities of those who have committed actual acts of violence like the Antifa guy who hit the kneeling protester with a bike lock) and often time just did something stupid.

Let’s cut off the mob rule, folks.



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