In recent months, both CNN and Fox have retracted stories on their websites regarding particularly high-profile topics on the left and right, respectively. Both sites issued similar excuses: A breakdown in normal editorial standards that led to something being published that shouldn’t have been.
Yet in most other ways, the two cases are a study in opposites.
CNN, on one hand, retracted its story within a day and issued an apology. The network immediately carried out an internal investigation. Three employees resigned. Those that remained were told that any future stories on the topic would need to be vetted by two top executives before publishing.
Fox, on the other hand, took a week to retract the story, though it was debunked by other news outlets within hours. Little news of an investigation within the network emerged. No on-air apology was issued, despite a week of speculative coverage on the cable network. No employees resigned. And one of the network’s stars — Sean Hannity — continues to promote the conspiracy theory to this day.
CNN’s original story and retraction
CNN’s original story, published on June 22nd, relates to the ongoing questions regarding whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian hack of the 2016 election. The matter is currently under investigation by Congress and the FBI.
In an exclusive story, CNN reported that as part of the ongoing investigation Congress was examining a “Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials.” The report cited a single anonymous source for these claims.
This story was quickly attacked by Breitbart, Russian news networks, and Anthony Scaramucci — the Trump transition team member that a Russian investment fund manager was supposed to have have met with prior to the inauguration.
By Friday evening, the story was scrubbed from the website and replaced with an editor’s note.
According to CNN, the story was removed because of a breakdown in the outlet’s normal editorial processes: A source at the network told the Washington Post that “There were editorial checks and balances within the organization that weren’t met.”
At an internal meeting, investigative reporters were reportedly told the story was not retracted because the facts had been proven wrong, but because it wasn’t “solid enough to publish as-is” and that the standard procedure wasn’t followed.
Fox’s original story and retraction
Fox’s original story related to a swirling conspiracy theory centered on the murder of DCCC staffer Seth Rich.
Rich was fatally shot in Washington, D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood in July 2016. D.C. Metropolitan police are still investigating the incident, but have said that the evidence so far points to his death as the result of a botched robbery.
But for months, right-wing blogs and media sites have speculated — without any evidence — that Rich was killed because he was the source of the hacked DNC emails provided to Wikileaks.
On May 16th, Fox News published a report, based on a statement by private investigator and Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler, in which Wheeler claimed to have evidence that Rich was in contact with Wikileaks.
Within hours, the report fell apart: Wheeler told a reporter for CNN that actually, he had no such evidence, and instead had been told that the evidence might exist by the Fox News reporter.
The Rich family also immediately put out a statement denying the report. Their lawyer told CNN that they were reviewing possible legal action against Wheeler for talking to the media.
Fox’s coverage continued over the protests of Seth Rich’s family, who directly asked that conservative news outlets and commentators to cease peddling “discredited conspiracy theories.”
“Those theories, which some reporters have since retracted, are baseless, and they are unspeakably cruel,” Rich’s parents wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
Yet the story remained on Fox’s website for six days before quietly disappearing on May 23rd.
The website issued a statement that “the article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.”
During the time the discredited Fox story remained online, it was a source of constant coverage and speculation on-air, particularly on Fox & Friends — where it was discussed by the hosts and promoted by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — and Sean Hannity’s nightly show.
What CNN did after the retraction
After retracting the story on Friday, CNN conducted an investigation into how it was published over the weekend.
On Monday, three CNN employees — the investigative reporter for the story, the editor, and the executive editor of the team — resigned. The reporter who published the original story deleted his tweet about it, and tweeted the network’s statement instead.
For the sake of transparency, I am posting an editor's note from CNN concerning a story I posted on Thursday — https://t.co/xdCGW1Ib65
— Tom Frank (@ByTomFrank) June 24, 2017
After the incident, CNN imposed tighter restrictions on stories about Russia: According to an internal email obtained by Buzzfeed, employees were told not to publish any story to the website relating to Russia without first running it by Rich Barbieri, the executive producer of CNN Money, and Jason Farkas, a CNN vice president.
What Fox did after the retraction
A debunked story remained on Fox’s website for almost a week while on-air personalities promoted it over the objections of a murdered man’s family. Yet even after the web story was retracted, no on-air apology was ever issued.
No one resigned, and no reports of editorial changes surfaced. And even after the retraction, Sean Hannity continues to promote the conspiracy theory on his Twitter, radio show, and website. (He has held off on discussing the story on his television show, however, saying this decision is a gesture of respect to the family.)
On May 23rd, Rich’s brother had sent a letter to Hannity’s executive producer begging him to back off.
“It is a travesty that you would prompt false conspiracy theories and other people’s agendas rather than work with the family to learn the truth,” he wrote. According to reports, Hannity had not reached out to the family while conducting his ‘investigation.’
Hannity has remained largely unapologetic.
“I am not FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing,” Hannity said on his radio show after the official retraction of the story. It’s a line he continued to employ on Twitter as lately as Monday.
I retracted NOTHING. I Rightly GAVE RESPECT to a grieving family that asked for it and was thanked by them. My investigation continues. https://t.co/e5w3Szvma2
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) June 27, 2017
Fox News’ take on CNN
Now, some of the very same Fox programs involved in promoting the debunked Seth Rich conspiracy theory are gleefully lecturing CNN on editorial standards.
CNN’s retracted story and the resignation of the three staffers played heavily on Fox & Friends Tuesday morning.
“It shows, it highlights what the mainstream media has been doing. They’ve been rushing to the story before they fact check the story,” guest Eric Bolling said on Fox & Friends Tuesday morning. “It may have been a wakeup call to the rest of the mainstream media: Hey, we’ve better stop this, we’ve got to start doing what we’re good at doing and go ahead and investigate sources and stories before they print them,” he added.
“They had one source!” an off-camera host interjected.
Online, Fox’s website ran a story titled “‘Fake News Network:’ Trump blasts CNN for retracted Russia story,” which heavily features President Donald Trump’s reaction to CNN’s retraction.
The network also had on pro-Trump pundit Laura Ingraham, editor in chief of Lifezette, to give her take on the incident. Lifezette has a long history of promoting thinly-sourced conspiracy theories.
“Other stories have already been retracted and they have been written and investigated by people who we are understanding to be serious journalists,” Ingraham said. “How is their track record holding up? I think Donald Trump is right to be very frustrated with this.”
Hannity, too, has joined the chorus.
Next… Find out which network had to backtrack after publishing a fake story about a Trump associate and Russia #Hannity
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) June 27, 2017
Question of the Day: Do you think CNN has a credibility crisis? #Hannity
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) June 27, 2017
Both networks, however, have recently published “fake news.” And when it comes to responding to the credibility crisis, CNN definitively comes out on top: The network moved quickly to remove the story, investigate the issue, change structures to address the problem, and hold the people involved accountable.
Sean Hannity, meanwhile, maintains his nightly program on Fox, and continues to use his platform to promote a debunked and retracted story.