In a shocking lapse in journalistic ethics, CNN recently ran this headline on its news blog website: “Miss USA: Muslim Trailblazer Or Hezbollah Spy?” The May 20 item offered no substance whatever to the implication that Rima Fakih somehow had something to do with terrorists. It referred only to an unnamed rightwing blogger spreading this rumor. As CNN put it: “She became the center of controversy overnight after pole dancing photos surfaced and spread across the globe just as fast as a rumor started by a U.S. neo-conservative blog that she’s a spy for the Shiite Lebanese group Hezbollah, designated by the U.S. and E.U. countries as a terrorist group.”
CNN did a disservice to ethical journalism by even mentioning this rumor. Good journalists don’t mention rumors. They know that any irresponsible person can start a rumor, no matter how unsubstantiated or farfetched, and once the rumor goes public it can go viral and cause lasting harm to someone’s reputation. Even worse, a rumor like this one plays into the hands of bigots who try to blame all Muslims for the actions of terrorists.
Although CNN retracted the original headline and replaced it with “Is Miss USA a Muslim Trailblazer?,” the damage had been done. As I write this blog on May 24, a Google search for the original headline turns up 8,700 results, so the “Hezbollah spy” language is still out there in cyberspace.
One oddity is that the original story was removed from the CNN news blog but it remained on CNN’s new religion blog, called Belief, and it still had the original, offensive headline. Then that headline was changed to conform to the revised news blog version. CNN added a note: “An earlier version of this post had a headline we thought was too provocative.” Asked by the blog TPM for a statement, CNN said: “Even before you asked about our provocative headline, some members of our team were discussing internally concerns surrounding the very same issue. In the process of editing the headline to something more appropriate, the posting was mistakenly pulled down from our breaking news blog, This Just In; and was left up on our newly launched Belief Blog. That was corrected quickly; and now you will find that the posting is back up on both blogs with editor’s notes explaining our headline change to ‘Is Miss USA a Muslim trailblazer?’.”
The revised story now added the words “outlandish” and “unfounded” to describe the rumor.
That’s fine, but it still doesn’t answer the question: Why did you ever include the rumor in the first place, and why did you continue to include it? A third version of the CNN story, dated May 21 and headlined “Miss USA says ‘American’ is her preferred label,” still refers to the rumor: “The rarity of a woman born in the Middle East representing the United States in the Miss Universe pageant spurred internet buzz. One rumor was that Fakih had family connections to Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite group that the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization.” That wording was still on the CNN “breaking news blog” website three days later.