CNN controversies

Cable News Network (CNN), an American basic cable and satellite television channel, has been the subject of several controversies. This article recounts controversies and allegations relating to both the domestic version of CNN, and its sister channels CNN International and CNN-News18.

CNN logo

Allegations of bias

CNN has often been the subject of allegations of party bias. In research conducted by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the authors found disparate treatment by CNN of Republican and Democratic candidates during the earliest five months of presidential primaries in 2007: "The CNN programming studied tended to cast a negative light on Republican candidates—by a margin of three-to-one. Four-in-ten stories (41%) were clearly negative while just 14% were positive and 46% were neutral. The network provided negative coverage of all three main candidates with McCain fairing the worst (63% negative) and Romney fairing a little better than the others only because a majority of his coverage was neutral. It's not that Democrats, other than Obama, fared well on CNN either. Nearly half of the Illinois Senator’s stories were positive (46%), vs. just 8% that were negative. But both Clinton and Edwards ended up with more negative than positive coverage overall. So while coverage for Democrats overall was a bit more positive than negative, that was almost all due to extremely favorable coverage for Obama."[1] In September 2009, a Pew Research Poll showed that Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to rate the network favorably, and Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to see CNN unfavorably.[2]

Octavia Nasr firing

In 2010, Chief Middle East correspondent Octavia Nasr was fired after a tweet saying she was "Sad to hear of the passing of Saved Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect[ed] a lot." Parisa Khosravi, senior vice president of CNN International, said she spoke with Nasr, and "we have decided that she will be leaving the company". Her reason for her removal was given as "As you know, her tweet over the weekend created a wide reaction. As she has stated in her blog on, she fully accepts that she should not have made such a simplistic comment without any context whatsoever. However, at this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward."[3]

Robert Fisk criticised CNN for the firing, saying, "Poor old CNN goes on getting more cowardly by the hour. That's why no one cares about it any more".[4]

Semi-automatic weapons

CNN apologized for a May 15, 2003, story in which CNN's John Zarella and Broward County, Florida Sheriff Ken Jenne demonstrated the rapid firing of fully automatic firearms while covering the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, due to expire the following year. The Assault Weapons Ban was concerned solely with semi-automatic firearms, not fully automatic ones, which had already been restricted by the National Firearms Act of 1934, and the subsequent 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act.[5][6]

Coverage of the 2016 U.S. presidential election

Occupy CNN protest

On April 3, 2016, hundreds of supporters of Bernie Sanders protested outside of CNN Los Angeles. Sanders supporters were protesting CNN's coverage of the 2016 United States presidential elections, specifically in regards to the lack of airtime Sanders had received. Known as Occupy CNN, protesters claimed that major media networks have intentionally blacked out Sanders' presidential campaign in favor of giving much more airtime to candidates such as Hillary Clinton.[7]

Donna Brazile and Roland Martin

In October 2016, WikiLeaks published emails from John Podesta which showed CNN contributor Donna Brazile passing the questions for a CNN-sponsored debate to the Clinton campaign.[8] In the email, Brazile discussed her concern about Clinton's ability to field a question regarding the death penalty. The following day Clinton would receive the question about the death penalty, verbatim, from an audience member at the CNN-hosted Town Hall event.[9] According to a CNNMoney investigation, debate moderator Roland Martin of TV One "did not deny sharing information with Brazile".[10] CNN severed ties with Brazile on October 14, 2016.[11][12]

Coverage of the 2020 U.S. presidential election

CNN Iowa Debate moderation

During the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries debate moderated by CNN and the Des Moines Register on January 14, 2020, CNN faced controversy and criticism from media pundits and the public alike over what many saw as blatant bias for centrist candidates[citation needed] as well as a CNN article[13] some journalists believe to be a manufactured hit piece intended to depict Bernie Sanders as a misogynist[14][15] prior to the debate followed by a series of adversarial and loaded questions during the debate itself regarding the anonymously sourced story.[16] The debate moderation by CNN was described as “villainous and shameful” by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi[17] and Zach Carter at the Huffington Post said the debate moderation was “awful”, writing “Again and again, CNN anchors substituted centrist talking points for questions―and then followed up predictable responses with further centrist talking points, rarely illuminating any substantive disagreements between the candidates or problems with their policy positions”.[18] Jeet Heer, the national affairs correspondent at The Nation said “the big loser of the night was the network that hosted the event. CNN was so consistently aligned against Bernie Sanders that it compromised its claim to journalistic neutrality."[19] After the debate, the number one trending hashtag on Twitter was “#CNNisTrash”.[20][21]

WikiLeaks emails

During live coverage of the 2016 elections, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo said that downloading the hacked and stolen Podesta emails from the WikiLeaks website was a violation of law and that only the media could legally do so. The statement drew criticism to the network for being false.[22][23][24]

Trump administration coverage

On January 10, 2017, CNN reported on the existence of classified documents that said Russia had compromising personal and financial information about then President-elect Donald Trump. CNN did not publish the dossier, or any specific details of the dossier. Later that day, BuzzFeed published the entire 35-page dossier with a disclaimer that it was unverified and "includes some clear errors".[25][26][27] The dossier had been read widely by political and media figures in Washington, and had been sent to multiple other journalists who had declined to publish it as it was unsubstantiated.[25] At a press conference the following day, Trump referred to CNN as fake news and refused to take a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta.[28]

On February 24, 2017, CNN and other media organizations such as The New York Times were blocked from a White House press gaggle. The network responded in a statement: "Apparently this is how they retaliate when you report facts they don't like. We'll keep reporting regardless."[29]

On June 26, 2017, three network investigative journalists; Thomas Frank, Eric Lichtblau, and Lex Haris, resigned from CNN over a false story, later retracted, that connected Anthony Scaramucci to a $10 billion Russian investment fund. The network apologized to Scaramucci and stated that the online story did not meet their editorial standards.[30]

The Washington Post again fact-checked a CNN report regarding Trump on December 8, 2017: CNN ran a story that claimed two sources told the network that the Trump campaign received an email that gave Trump and his son Don, Jr., early access to WikiLeaks documents on September 4, 2016. CNN, however, had not obtained the supposed September 4 email. The sender was "Michael J. Erickson", who CNN was not able to contact. The Washington Post, however, did obtain the email, which showed that the email was actually sent on the day after the hacked documents were released by WikiLeaks on September 14, 2016.[31] CNN issued a correction of their story.[citation needed]

The network also imposed new rules on Russia–related stories being published to social, video, editorial, or MoneyStream without going through the chain of command within CNN.[32]

In January 2020, Don Lemon had a panel discussion on his show with Republican strategist Rick Wilson and The New York Times columnist Wajahat Ali, both of whom have spoken out against Trump. Lemon began laughing after Wilson joked, "Trump couldn’t find Ukraine on a map if you had the letter 'U' and a picture of an actual physical crane next to it" and called Trump supporters "the credulous boomer rube demo."[33] Lemon continued to laugh as the two guests mocked Trump supporters using a southern accent saying things like "you elitists with your geography and your maps and your spelling" and "Your math and your readin'."[34] After Trump responded by calling Lemon "the dumbest man on television," Lemon defended himself saying "During an interview on Saturday night, one of my guests said something that made me laugh. And while in the moment I found that joke humorous, I didn’t catch everything that was said. Just to make this perfectly clear, I was laughing at the joke and not at any group of people."[35]

Coverage on international incidents

Persian Gulf War

During the Persian Gulf War, CNN was criticized for excessively pushing human interest stories and avoiding depictions of violent images, the result being an alleged "propagandistic" presentation of news.[36] A report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) quotes an unnamed CNN reporter as describing "the 'sweet beautiful sight' of bombers taking off from Saudi Arabia".[37]

Coverage of Iranian protests

In 2014, the network was criticized for an unusual absence of live coverage of a large set of protests that followed the 2014 elections in Iran.[38]

Coverage of Margaret Thatcher's death

CNN was criticized for using a photograph of former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher with disgraced BBC presenter Jimmy Savile four times during coverage of her death on April 8, 2013.[39] Allegations of sexual abuse against Savile were made public in 2012, a year after his death, leading UK police to believe that Savile may have been one of Britain's most prolific sex offenders.[40] An image of Thatcher with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was also run during the broadcast, leading some commentators to accuse CNN of bias.[41][42]

Conflict with Venezuelan government

On February 8, 2017, a joint CNN and CNN en Español investigation – based on the information provided by a whistleblower exiled in Spain and subsequent investigations, reported that employees of the Venezuelan embassy in Baghdad, Iraq has been selling passports and visas to persons from Middle Eastern countries with dubious backgrounds for profits, including to members of the Lebanese group Hezbollah. The Venezuelan immigration department, SAIME, confirmed the sold passports' genuineness as each passport came with an assigned national identification number, although the names of these individuals were altered when checking against the national database. At least one individual's place of birth was also changed from Iraq to Venezuela. The Venezuelan foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, denied the government's involvement when questioned by the reporters during the Seventy-first session of the United Nations General Assembly, and accused the network of performing what she described as an "imperialistic media operation" against Venezuela for airing the year-long fraud investigation.[43] On February 14, 2017, Venezuelan authorities banned CNN en Español from broadcasting two days after the Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, ordered CNN to "[get] well away from here".[44][45]

After the decision, CNN responded by providing a live-streaming service on YouTube and CNN en Español's website free of charge for Venezuelan viewers. The English-language CNN International channel is still being broadcast in Venezuela.[46]

Essex lorry deaths reports

On October 23, 2019, 39 dead bodies were discovered in a refrigerated lorry in Essex, the United Kingdom. There were initial reports from the media saying that all 31 men and eight women inside the lorry were Chinese illegal immigrants being smuggled into the UK.[47] On the October 25, 2019 Chinese foreign ministry's daily press conference, the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated that "[t]he British police are working against the clock to verify the victims, but currently they are not able to confirm their nationalities." [48] In a follow up question, CNN reporter David Culver linked the incident with the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China celebrated earlier by asking "there have been many successes, advances and progress of the past 70 years with the People's Republic of China, [but] from an outside perspective, what would then motivate people from China to want to leave in such a risky way?"[48][49] A similar CNN commentary was also published earlier questioning "Why would people from China, the world's second-biggest economy, risk their lives to enter the UK?"[50] Hua criticised that the question was inappropriate, repeated that the nationalities of the victims were still under verification, and retorted "What kind of answer did you hope to get from that?". She said the CNN reporter's presumption of linking the identity of those victims with the PRC's 70th anniversary reflected the "wrongful mindset" of the Western media. Hua also emphasised that the current pressing issue was to step up international cooperation in countering human trafficking, and find ways to avoid similar tragedies from happening again. In the report of CNN, this question was described only "about the possibility of Chinese citizens being illegally trafficked" and "was rebuffed by the spokesperson".[51]

The video clip of the press conference was immediately widely publicised and circulated on Chinese websites and social media, with many Chinese being angered by CNN's question and praising Hua's "appropriate" reply.[52][53] Hu Xijin, editor of the Chinese newspaper Global Times and an influential news commentator on the social media, said on his Weibo that the CNN reporter was "brought into a ditch" by the Chinese public intellectuals who "seemed to collude with each other". Hu said he wanted to remind those reporters they "should not just look at those few dissidents who hold different opinions and shouting on the Internet. Reach more to the general public in Chinese society. Don't just listen to opinions pleasing to yourselves." [54] Later as the police confirmed that all victims were from Vietnam, the People's Daily also published an online commentary criticising CNN for "violat[ing] the ethics of news reporting", and "show[ing] its intention to tarnish China's image without acquiring solid facts and final results from British police." [55]

Operation Tailwind

In 1998, CNN, in partnership with sister Time magazine, ran a report that Operation Tailwind in 1970 in Vietnam involved the use of Sarin gas to kill a group of defectors from the United States military. The Pentagon denied the story. Skeptics deemed it improbable that such an extraordinary and risky atrocity could have gone unnoticed at the height of the Vietnam War's unpopularity. CNN, after a two-week inquiry, issued a retraction.[56] The story's producers were summarily fired, and one of them has been highly critical of CNN's handling of the story, saying that the network bowed to pressure from high-ranking officials to kill the story.[57][58]

Suppression of Bahraini protests, and reporting of Iran and Syria

In October 2011, correspondent Amber Lyon met with Tony Maddox, president of CNN International, twice about a documentary on advances of democracy in the Middle East in which she was featured, and which was aired in the US but never by CNN International—the most watched English news channel in the Middle East—despite a high production cost, international acclaim and awards. She claimed that during the second meeting she was threatened and intimated to stop speaking on the matter. According to a CNN employee, officials from the Bahrain regime called CNN constantly complaining about Lyon's participation in the network. She was later laid-off.[59]


Resignation of Eason Jordan

In February 2005, Jordan resigned from CNN. The resignation came in response to controversy sparked after bloggers wrote that, at the recent World Economic Forum, Jordan had seemed to accuse the U.S. military of having purposely killed journalists. While Jordan acknowledged his remarks were not sufficiently clear, he denied that this was what he had meant to imply, saying that he had "great admiration and respect for the men and women of the U.S. armed forces".[60]

Jeff Zucker

CNN was criticized for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, after erroneously reporting that a "dark-skinned male" had been arrested in connection with the attack.[61][62][63] In the aftermath of the broadcast, Jeff Zucker – who became president of CNN in 2013 – lauded the coverage, claiming that "CNN shined this week",[64] and boasted ratings success that CNN achieved during the coverage, adding that "viewers respected the network's accountability when it admitted its mistakes".[65] Jon Stewart criticized Zucker's comments after calling CNN's coverage of the Washington Navy Yard shooting "breathless wrongness", claiming that, "The lesson they take from this is – it doesn't matter how much they betray our trust. We'll keep coming back.”[65]

Individual hosts and contributors

Reza Aslan

After the 2017 London Bridge attack, Aslan took to Twitter to call President Trump "a piece of shit" and a "man baby" for his response to the attack.[66] In response to his remarks, CNN announced on June 9 that they had severed ties with Aslan and said they would not move forward with season two of the Believer series.[67] Aslan said of the cancellation, "I am not a journalist. I am a social commentator and scholar. And so, I agree with CNN that it is best that we part ways."[67]

Brooke Baldwin

During the 2015 Baltimore riots, Brooke Baldwin suggested that veterans were responsible for the unrest, saying soldiers who become police officers "are coming back from war, they don't know the communities, and they're ready to do battle". Baldwin initially pushed back critics, claiming she was just repeating something a city official had told her. She later apologized via Twitter and on-air.[68]

Carol Costello

On October 22, 2014, CNN Newsroom host Carol Costello reported on the audio release of Bristol Palin being assaulted by a man at a get-together in Alaska. Costello laughed and called it "quite possibly the best minute and a half of audio we've ever come across".[69] She was instantly criticized for making fun of a woman who was being physically abused by a man she did not know, as well as for being a hypocrite after recently calling for ESPN to suspend Stephen A. Smith after comments he made about women during the Ray Rice controversy. Costello eventually apologized in a statement to Politico, stating: "Over the past few days, I have been roundly criticized for joking about a brawl involving the Palin family. In retrospect, I deserve such criticism and would like to apologize."[70]

Lou Dobbs

CNN host Lou Dobbs promoted the false conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.[71][72] His willingness to raise the "birther" issue repeatedly[73] even though CNN itself considered it a "discredited rumor",[74] led The Washington Post's TV critic to remark that this "explains their upcoming documentary: 'The World: Flat. We Report – You Decide.'"[75] The issue had come up in 2008 during the Presidential campaign, and had largely disappeared from the media spotlight until Dobbs picked up the issue again.[76] His statements in support of these conspiracy theories were dubbed "racist" and "defamatory" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.[77][78] The controversy led to Media Matters airing ads critical of Dobbs and of CNN,[79] and to Jon Stewart mocking Dobbs on the satirical Comedy Central television series The Daily Show.[80] The New York Times said that Dobbs had "become a publicity nightmare for CNN, embarrassed his boss and hosted a show that seemed to contradict the network's 'no bias' brand."[81]

Don Lemon

On June 22, 2015, Lemon attempted to spark debate by holding up the Confederate flag and a sign with "nigger" written in large capital letters while asking, "does this offend you?" He received immediate criticism for the stunt.[82] It also started a series of memes on the internet, which featured the original screen shot of Lemon holding the sign, the headline "Does this Offend You?" and different images or sayings photo-shopped over the sign.[83]

Fredricka Whitfield

On June 13, 2015, while discussing the 2015 attack on the Dallas police headquarters, host Fredricka Whitfield referred to the gunman, James Boulware, as "courageous and brave, if not crazy". The comment received immediate backlash and calls for her to apologize. The next day, Whitfield stated on air that she misspoke and in no way believed the gunman was courageous or brave.[84] After the backlash continued, she issued another on-air apology on June 15, saying she terribly misused those words, now understood how offensive it was and was sincerely sorry.[85][86]


Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance

Comedian Jon Stewart appeared on Crossfire on October 15, 2004 and criticized its format and the style of arguments presented on the show. He called hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala "partisan hacks", and asked them to "stop hurting America". Begala argued that the purpose of the show was that it was intended as for debate, to which Stewart responded "To do a debate would be great. But that's like saying Pro Wrestling is a show about athletic competition" and called Carlson's signature bow-tie an example of "theater". At one point Carlson told Stewart "I think you're more fun on your show", Stewart replied by saying: "You know what's interesting though? You're as big a dick on your show as you are on any show." Carlson later told Stewart that, "You need to get a job at a journalism school, I think", to which Stewart quipped, "You need to go to one".[87][88][89]

Carlson departed CNN in January 2005; the network cancelled Crossfire at that same time. CNN president Jonathan Klein stated that, "I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart's overall premise."[89][90] Carlson said that he had resigned from CNN before Stewart's appearance claiming: "I resigned from Crossfire in April, many months before Jon Stewart came on our show, because I didn't like the partisanship, and I thought in some ways it was kind of a pointless conversation... each side coming out, you know, [raises fists] 'Here's my argument', and no one listening to anyone else. [CNN] was a frustrating place to work."[91][92] Begala remained with CNN after Crossfire's cancellation.

Steubenville High School rape case coverage

Candy Crowley, Poppy Harlow and Paul Callan were criticized for being sympathetic towards the two convicted rapists in the Steubenville High School rape case and for placing very little focus on the victim on March 17, 2013.[93] During the course of the delinquent verdict, Harlow stated that it was "Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart...when that sentence came down, [Ma'lik] collapsed in the arms of his attorney... He said to him, 'My life is over. No one is going to want me now.'"[94] An online petition garnered over 200,000 signatures protesting the coverage and demanding an apology.[95]

CNN also revealed the name of the 16-year-old victim on March 17 by broadcasting unedited footage of one of the convicted rapists' post-conviction statements. This practice is against the Associated Press guidelines for coverage.[96]

Coverage of the Cleveland kidnapping victims

On the morning of May 7, 2013, CNN interrupted coverage of the Jodi Arias murder trial with an update of the release of three young women from Cleveland, Ohio who were kidnapped by Ariel Castro between 2002 and 2004. CNN correspondent Ashleigh Banfield appeared to interview HLN host Nancy Grace from a remote location, and it appeared that both were filming from parking lots. The channel graphics later alerted viewers that both reporters were in Phoenix, Arizona. The same cars were noticeable driving behind the two anchors, first behind Banfield and then by Grace. It became obvious that Grace and Banfield were, in fact, sitting in the same parking lot, pretending to be in remote locations when both were actually approximately 30 feet from each other.[97]

Redditor controversy

On July 2, 2017, President Donald Trump posted a video on Twitter depicting him repeatedly clotheslining and punching WWE owner Vince McMahon on the ground during WrestleMania 23. The clip had been edited to place a CNN logo over McMahon's face. Two days later, CNN published a story entitled, "How CNN found the Reddit user behind the Trump wrestling GIF", which labeled Reddit user "HanAssholeSolo" as the creator of the viral video. In the article, political reporter Andrew Kaczynski explained the process that allowed the organization to discover the identity of the user.[98]

After the publication of the article, the user posted an apology to CNN, including apologies for previous Reddit postings that could be taken as well as containing racist, anti-Islam, and anti-Semitic language and imagery on the Reddit group /r/The Donald. Immediately afterwards, his apology was locked and deleted by the subreddit's moderators[98][99][100] while the user deleted his Reddit account.[101][102] After confirming the identity of the Reddit user, HanAssholeSolo expressed his unwillingness for his name to be released to the public. In response, CNN stated that they would not reveal his name, as he was "[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. CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change."[98]

Prominent Alt-right users on social media subsequently accused CNN of blackmailing the user, using a hashtag, #CNNBlackmail, that was heavily pushed by Julian Assange, as well as various right-wing online activists and conspiracy theorists.[103][104] Kaczynski responded by stating that CNN's statement was "misinterpreted", and that the user said that he was not threatened prior to his apology.[105] Meanwhile, Madison Malone Kircher of New York Magazine opined that CNN could have avoided the internet vigilantism if the network had simply published his identity, as is common in similar situations, criticizing their decision to "protect" the user.[106]

CNN's decision to withhold the user's name was also criticized by William Grueskin, a professor at Columbia University. Grueskin argued that the user was neither an abuse victim nor a confidential witness nor a juvenile. Meanwhile, Indira Lakshmanan of Poynter Institute said that it was more likely that, out of fear, the user begged CNN to have his name withheld.[107] Kirsten Powers, a commentator at CNN, also criticized CNN's decision, asking in a USA Today article: "What about the people he routinely dehumanizes and degrades online?"[108] Powers also wrote on Twitter that "people do not have a 'right' to stay anonymous so they can spew their racist, misogynist, homophobic garbage".[109]

See also


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