Beyond Belief: CNN and rumors about Miss USA

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.

Beyond belief.

(Photo: ArabDetroit)

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3 Comments

Filed under CNN, media bias, Middle East, news media, Palestinians, terrorism

3 responses to “Beyond Belief: CNN and rumors about Miss USA

  1. Jefferson Morley

    This is yet another example of how the “blogs to cable” transmission belt shapes the news more than traditional standards of fairness and accuracy. Indeed, it should be noted that the purpose of the transmission belt is often to defeat standards of fairness and accuracy for political gain: in this case, the demonization of Arab-Americans.

  2. Michelle McMahon

    This situation also reminds me of the rumors that were presented on Fox News Channel (although, it is commentary and misleadingly not credible news) about Obama having ties with Middle Eastern terrorist as well during the presidential election. It also makes me question where the filter was when these rumors were being published? How did this get past the authorities of CNN as being news worthy? My last question is were the people involved with the story punished for damaging if not completely destroying this poor girl’s reputation? I agree that rumors should not be published on credible news organizations; it not only damages the person involved, but also the reputation of news organizations that refer to rumors.

  3. Lindsey H.

    It’s sad to think that a prominent news organization like CNN would even consider using a rumor regarding newly crowned Miss U.S.A. Rima Fakih in its headline about her accomplishment. The story’s headline, “USA; Muslim trailblazer? or spy?” was eventually changed when CNN’s admitted that the original headline was too”provacative” CNN should have known better than to publish this rumor in such a manner as to give it credibility. It is one thing to report on rumors and acknowledge them as such but it is another matter when the actual rumor shows up in the headline without any qualifying language.This headline misrepresented the main story and goes against the code of ethics which encourages journalists to “seek truth and report it”. While the headline as written made for a sensational claim, it really misled readers into believing that the article would give some evidence for such a bold assertion.Instead, the assertion was taken out of context (something a blogger wrote) and prominately placed in the heasline where when read and believed,has the potential to ruin Fakih’s future and possible put her life in danger. Even though CNN editors changed the headline and showed some level of accountability, it makes me wonder what the motives were behind this headline. It’s just like the rumors regarding Elana Kagan and whether she’s a lesbian or not. Until there are facts, an established news organization such as CNN should never report a rumor as if it were based on fact and certainly not in a headline.

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