American News

CNN and the Art of Overstatement

CNN shows how contradicting a story that contradicts a story can keep people’s fears alive.
Bernie Sanders news, Bernie Sanders, Democratic primaries, Democratic Party, Joe Biden, US politics news, American news, Russian interference, US elections, 2020 election

Bernie Sanders in Des Moines, Iowa, USA on 9/21/2019. © Rich Koele / Shutterstock

March 03, 2020 12:28 EDT

After echoing a report leaked by The Washington Post a day before the Nevada caucuses claiming that an intelligence briefing a month earlier had informed members of Congress that Russia was once again interfering in US elections to get President Donald Trump reelected, CNN made an effort to find out what was behind the story. The Post’s article suggested that there was also a link between the Kremlin and Senator Bernie Sanders.

For those who feel they may have heard this story before, it is the proverbial déjà vu of Russiagate all over again. In the context of the Democratic presidential primaries, the idea of a connection between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Bernie Sanders could only be damaging to the senator from Vermont, who is the current Democratic frontrunner.

The Democratic Party Goes to War With Its Voters


The CNN reporters showed themselves a little more enterprising than The Washington Post and managed to do something The Post apparently had no time for. They caught up with three national security officials who had the inside story and clarified it for them. The officials explained that it amounted to an unfortunate misunderstanding.

The source of the original story was a certain Shelby Pierson, whom CNN identified as the US intelligence community’s top election security official. The corrected version of the story tells us that Pierson “appears to have overstated the intelligence community’s formal assessment of Russian interference in the 2020 election, omitting important nuance during a briefing with lawmakers earlier this month.” One of the three officials called Pierson’s conclusion “misleading” and another said it “lacked nuance.”

It should be added that Pierson wasn’t the only one to overstate her case. The Washington Post, which decided to publish the story in the absence of any concrete evidence, took the initiative of overstating Pierson’s overstatement. CNN’s reporter explains that interviews with the three officials reveal that “the US doesn’t yet have the evidence to conclude that Russia is interfering in the election because they view Trump as a leader they can work with, because they have a preference for President Trump.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Explain with lurid detail something that is utterly false while giving the impression that it should be accepted because it is merely an exaggeration of the truth

Contextual Note

CNN could have simply presented this as an inaccurate story that has now been corrected and presented the known facts. But its treatment clearly aims at creating new doubts about the corrected version of the story and raising the expectation that further developments will contradict the new version and lead us back to the first conclusion. The implicit message: Stay tuned, it ain’t over. Russiagate still has legs.

This leads to an extraordinary display of ambiguous and calculatingly disingenuous journalistic doubletalk. CNN begins with a TV host who introduces the sequence before presenting the actual reporter. The host warns the audience: “We need to put a fine point on this because it is complex, it is nuanced.” For a story about Russian interference in US elections, this may be the first time in three years that CNN and similar media have admitted that there may be a need for nuance in reporting the Russiagate affair.

Embed from Getty Images

To make this narrative palatable and possibly defend the fact that CNN amplified The Post’s version on February 21 in a story with the title, “Sanders told Russia is trying to help his campaign,” CNN now invokes two related concepts: complexity and nuance. The obvious purpose is to attenuate the impact of what is quite literally a malicious lie committed by two accomplices: Shelby Pierson and the media, fed by The Washington Post. At least CNN had the courage to investigate it and report on the findings.

The implicit message of The Post’s article was: Bernie Sanders is an unwitting stooge of the Russians, a useful idiot. It was only two days later that the public could learn that the US “does not yet have the evidence,” which is a curiously nuanced way of saying that, in purely factual terms, there is no evidence. It’s not as if there was suddenly evidence that no evidence existed. If the presumed evidence doesn’t exist now, it couldn’t have existed two days earlier when both The Post and CNN gave space to the allegation.

So, why did The Post, CNN and other media disseminate what was essentially a malicious rumor? Could there have been a political motive? The only evidence for that is the language CNN uses to blur the impact of the new evidence that has emerged concerning Pierson’s misleading statements.

CNN’s writers must have worked carefully to insert the adjectives “complex” and “nuanced,” which they coupled with the assertion that the evidence has “not yet” appeared. It creates the impression that the rumor or lie might be confirmed as true at some future point in time. Just to make sure the public understands what we might call the “possibility of truth,”  White House correspondent Jeremy Diamond tells us: “None of this is cut and dried, it is complicated and it is nuanced.” Even more extraordinary is the number of times the journalists repeat the word “yet,” intended to instill the right amount of hope that the missing evidence will one day appear.

The logical gymnastics the reporters engage in produced in one of the many “yet” statements a shocking double Freudian slip that the editorial team should have caught and cut. Diamond tells the audience: “Now the United States doesn’t have that information as of yet to conclude conclusively to help [sic] the United States.” He presumably meant to help Russia, but his tautological “conclude conclusively” led him astray. It’s an example of the kind of insistence that Sigmund Freud (kettle logic) and, before him, Shakespeare saw as revealing (“The lady doth protest too much”).

The one bit of not so complex or nuanced truth we get from the CNN story is this: “One national security official said Russia’s only clear aim, as of now, is to sow discord in the United States.” That, by the way, is exactly what Sanders said when queried by a journalist on the tarmac at the Las Vegas airport.

Historical Note

Some will remember Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s protestations in 2002 — months before the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 — affirming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Rumsfeld proudly reasoned: “Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.”

Using the absence of evidence fallacy has become a standard practice in US foreign policy. As the Russiagate fiasco that led to the Robert Mueller-led investigation shows, it has become one of the favored logical principles not just of the government, but also of the media. It enables them to create a sense of fear and foreboding. These are the qualities of a story that attract eyeballs to their news programs. At the same time, their reporting helps to justify the often extremely aggressive and sometimes highly illegal “remedial action” taken by the same government that initially fed them the story.


CNN even provides a psychological explanation of why the misunderstanding took place. It tells us that “Pierson’s characterization of Russian interference led to pointed questions from lawmakers, which officials said caused Pierson to overstep and assert that Russia has a preference for Trump to be reelected.” Apparently, “pointed questions” can be dangerously sharpened weapons that poke holes in a security official’s ability to tell the truth. By emphasizing the fact of “overstepping,” CNN hides the real point of that sentence: that there is no evidence even of Putin’s preference for Trump, let alone Sanders.

Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director and current secretary of state, clarified everything last year when he proudly admitted that the CIA trained its operatives to “lie, cheat and steal.” We are left wondering whether the CIA trainers are ever called into corporate media such as The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC or The New York Times to train the editorial staff at least in the lying part of the job.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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