CNN runs extremely misleading Obama headline

(Updated Below)

by Brad Jacobson

The day after the second Presidential Debate, one of CNN’s top online headlines was:

Ticker: Obama actions called ‘not presidential’

Naturally, readers might think this refers to something Barack Obama did or said during last night’s debate. That it’s possibly a response from a cross-section of undecided voters in a new poll. Or readers might think, having nothing to do with the debate, the headline refers to something Obama has done in the past, or something he may have even done today.

Whatever readers might think, they would have no idea — unless or until they clicked on it — that this egregiously misleading headline was actually referring to a new John McCain attack ad.


Specifically, the linked headline took you to CNN’s Political Ticker blog, which includes a brief blurb about the ad and three separate links to view it: one takes readers to YouTube, the other two to CNN Video, where, in both cases, the reader has to first sit through a commercial generating ad revenue for CNN before getting to the McCain ad. That’s right, the extra bonus here is that CNN is using a McCain attack ad to make money for CNN. (On this particular point, I’m not saying this is unprecedented or that CNN may not have done the same for Obama in the past; I haven’t looked into that, so I don’t know. I’m just saying it’s sleazy. A one-for-one, we’ll show you the McCain ad if you sit through our sponsor’s ad, thus a news organization directly making money by playing a candidate’s campaign ad. Again, I haven’t looked into this yet, but this seems a bit shady.)

MEDIABLOODHOUNDcontacted CNN earlier and, after repeated attempts, reached an online news representative. When I pointed out the terribly misleading headline, the representative first defended it, saying, “But ‘not presidential’ is in quotes.” I explained that has no bearing on what makes it misleading, but rather the fact that there’s no identifier in the headline so the reader knows it’s referring to a new McCain attack ad. She then told me I would have to speak to someone in “Politics,” but when I asked to speak to them now, she said, “No one’s in yet because of the debates last night.” I responded, “Well, someone has to be there because someone is putting these links up now. These are today’s links.” She told me I’ll have to call back later. When I asked for her name, she refused to tell me, repeating, “You’ll have to call back later,” and hung up abruptly.

Yes, CNN. The Best Political Team in News.

By the way, if you’d like to contact CNN about this, its general phone number is 404-827-1500. Ask to speak to a live person in the online division or you’ll be summarily passed off to a machine. And please, be respectful when making your opinions known.

UPDATE: Right before posting this, I saw that CNN has taken down that headline, replacing it with a new one linking to another Political Ticker post. That headline:

Ticker: McCain campaign ‘appalling,’ paper says

Confirming the irresponsible wording of the original Obama headline and the potentially purposeful bias against the Democratic presidential candidate inherent in it, this McCain headline is graciously — and correctly — afforded the signifier “paper says.”

The decidedly different treatment? Appalling. I look forward to CNN’s correction. But I won’t hold my breath.

Cross-posted from MediaBloodhound.

11 replies »

  1. Those kind of misleading problems are something that Republicans deal with everyday, so y’all ought to get used to it.

    What I wish is that the media would discuss Obama’s involvement with the New Party. That would be very interesting.


  2. At this point I think CNN is probably the most fair cable news organization. Fox is way right and MSNBC is way left. That being said I have made a concerted effort to watch all three of them. As an independent (but former Republican) I don’t want to be fed the party line from the left or the right. The best way to avoid that is to watch multiple sources while recognizing their biases.

  3. Brad, I respectfully suggest there’s another reason that explains this other than a sleazy or conspiratorial intent (sorry; that’s how I read the tone of your wording).

    The hed is text. The hed represents, to me, another example of incompetence in writing, editing and proofreading at CNN, both on air and online. For example, the news crawler earlier this week carried the surname “Sinpson” while the signage above it discussing OJ’s conviction said “Simpson.” This morning, viewers were treated to “the mortagage crisis” repeatedly.

    CNN is as affected by the economics of the news biz as print. I’d love to be a fly on the wall watching the process of writing online heds, news crawlers and graphics. I’d also like to know who, if anyone, is charged with actually watching a television set (or computer) to detect and immediately correct such errors.

    Conspiracy? No. Incompetence? Much more likely … and, frankly, far more damaging to to the public in the long run.

    Thanks for the post — and the phone number.

  4. Sure, Denny, I agree. My point wasn’t to say this was definitively a case of bias, which is why I wrote “irresponsible wording” and “potentially purposeful bias.” The meaning intended was it was either a mistake or intentional. That’s reasonable, right? I used “sleazy” in relation to a separate piece of this incident: CNN’s making ad revenue through playing a campaign’s ad, making readers sit through its sponsor’s ad to see the McCain ad. That seems sleazy or shady. But, as I mentioned, I’m not sure if that’s breaking any rules or is unprecedented. It seems it should be. Do you know?

  5. Brad,

    “On further review” I see your point more clearly. I missed it, probably b/c I’m blinded by CNN’s lack of commitment to fixing such errors promptly. My inside knowledge of CNN, sadly, dates from the Turner years. I think it’s the level of staffing and the lack of training of staff that ineptly does something unintendly results in something “sleazy or shady.” But that result obviously speaks loudly.

    Thanks for clarifying your point.

  6. Nope. Knew people there through a close friend who did programming at TBS in the old days.

  7. Given the amount of excessively positive stories CNN has written on Obama, you can let this one slide.

  8. So positive stories make it OK to post a completely misleading story? And what’s a positive Obama story for you? Obama’s up in the polls? McCain pulls out of Michigan? Undecided voters think McCain lost 2nd debate? Tell me the “positive” stories CNN keeps pumping out for Obama.

    Would it be OK with you if CNN posted this headline online: McCain Doesn’t Denounce Obama Death Threat. Um, sorry, that one is actually completely true. Let’s see. OK, how about this:

    McCain Supports Death Threats Against Obama

    You see the difference? In fact, that headline is more accurate and less misleading than the one I wrote about. But I’m all ears for your explanation on the ethical journalistic equivalency here. Do tell.