Earlier this year, a glitch struck MSNBC that caused the word “Russia” to replay over and over again after it was initially spoken by guest David Ignatius. The eagle eyes at Mediaite somehow caught this flub and wrote it up, even though it was completely indistinguishable from MSNBC’s regular coverage. Have you watched them recently? Or CNN? The fixation on Donald Trump’s unproven collusion with Moscow has bordered on the psychotic. Dostoyevsky was less haunted by Russian sins; RT certainly covers Vladimir Putin less obsessively.
Now Project Veritas has unveiled a new video that shows several hidden camera conversations between an undercover journalist and John Bonifield, a seasoned CNN producer and journalist. What of the network’s wall-to-wall coverage of the putative Russia scandal? “It’s mostly bullshit right now,” Bonifield says. “We don’t have any big, giant proof.” Then why are they fetishistically covering it? “Because it’s ratings. …Our ratings are incredible right now.” What’s more, Bonifield says his boss — The CEO of CNN, Jeff Zucker — told him earlier this month: “Good job everybody covering the climate accords. But we’re done with it. Let’s get back to Russia.”
Project Veritas is headed up by James O’Keefe, a pugnacious conservative journalist with a penchant for undercover ambushes and a history of, shall we say, mild disrepute. That being said, I’m inclined to trust this latest sting for three reasons. First, extensive video is provided of the interview. Second, it would have been impossible to splice together Bonifield’s remarks in a way that changed their meeting: his comments are emphatic and speak for themselves. Third, CNN’s coverage of the Russia story has been so unmoored from the hard evidence that eventually it was bound to disgruntle the network’s more serious staff. Bonifield has worked at CNN since at least 2002 in a number of capacities; it’s hardly implausible that he’d grow tired of the recent yellow journalism.
Established reporters, meanwhile, are circling the wagons:
I’m not sure O’Keefe did use Bonifield as a synecdoche for all of CNN, but even if he did, as the Project Veritas Twitter account later asked, what about Zucker’s alleged comments? He’s the CEO, which means he does represent the whole network, and per Bonifield’s assessment he regards the Russia scandal as a ratings piggybank. This isn’t putting words into Zucker’s mouth; it’s verbal confirmation of what anyone who’s spent a couple hours watching CNN over the past six months has already concluded. The network is juicing its viewership by pandering to left-wing obsessions. It’s serving up a cathartic follow-along-at-home whodunit for angry liberals, with anonymous leaks as clues, Trump associates as suspects—everything, really, except evidence.
In fact, we now have more proof that CNN is cynically exploiting its viewers than that Trump colluded with Russia to get elected. Jeff Zucker is our new person of interest and he’s a colorful character. A former CEO of NBC, his fingerprints were all over the late-night fiasco of 2010 when Conan O’Brien had the “Tonight Show” snatched away from him. To his detractors, Zucker is a case study in failing upward; to his admirers, he’s a hard-driving genius whose tenure at NBC was more bad luck than anything else. Either way, he’s a network TV man and that means ratings are his coin.
RELATED: Why I hate CNN
For CNN, this has been a blessing but mostly a curse. Zucker has brought in tremendous talent like Anthony Bourdain and W. Kamau Bell, whose globe-trotting documentary shows both turbocharged the network’s viewership and expanded its journalistic purview. But he also turned CNN’s daytime election programming into a lemon squeezer of partisan obsessions—Russia, emails; Russia, emails. Today, the Russia story has consumed the emails and CNN’s ratings have never been higher.
Cable news’s most storied network has thus been turned into a never-ending episode of “Quantico.” And that’s where the peril lies, at least politically. CNN and other mainstream outlets have so pumped up the expectations over the Russia investigation that the emotionally invested left is unlikely to ever let it go, even if Trump is cleared by the special counsel, as seems more likely than not. Committed anti-Trumpers will only sink further into the realm of the crackpot, devising conspiratorial workarounds for whatever exculpations Robert Mueller might proffer. This is what happens when you turn the pursuit of facts into galloping fictional potboiler. It’s thrilling to read but you can’t have an anticlimactic ending.