By Jonathan Easley - 06-28-17 06:00 AM EDT
President Trump's war with CNN took an even more personal turn on Tuesday after the White House used its press briefing to tout a hidden camera video calling the cable news network's coverage of the Russia controversy "bullshit."
The undercover video from conservative sting artist James O'Keefe showed a CNN producer questioning the network's coverage and suggesting important stories had been buried to keep the focus on Trump and Russia.
At Tuesday's press briefing, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders encouraged viewers to watch the O'Keefe video, calling it "a disgrace to all of media, all of journalism."
She also took a dig at CNN President Jeff Zucker, saying the sensationalism and disregard for facts was "coming directly from the top."
CNN is standing by the producer, John Bonifield, who covers health and medicine from the network's headquarters in Atlanta. In a statement, the network said "diversity of personal opinion is what makes CNN strong."
"We welcome it and embrace it," a spokesperson told The Hill.
A CNN source told The Hill that the tempest over the video will pass, saying it was recorded after an undercover conservative operative approached Bonifield claiming to have had a history of personal hardships and asking to be taken in to a mentoring program.
"It's silly, it's been spun up as something it's not," the CNN source said. "He's a health unit producer in Atlanta. He has nothing to do with Washington politics or the investigative unit."
The video appeared at a difficult moment for CNN, however, which was just forced to retract a story alleging that one of Trump's associates had improper dealings with a Kremlin-backed bank. The episode led three of CNN's reporters to resign and reinforced the notion among many conservatives that the network is hell-bent on taking Trump down.
On a Tuesday morning conference call with CNN officials, Zucker stressed that the network has to "play error-free ball" going forward, as all their mistakes will be magnified.
"He's been saying it for months, it's just unfortunate because there is no more room for mess-ups," a second source at CNN told The Hill.
The feud between Trump and CNN, smoldering for years, had already intensified before the firings and O'Keefe video.
It pits against one another two men with a long history: Zucker was the head of NBC when Trump hosted his hit reality show "The Apprentice."
Conservative media outlets such as Breitbart News are now agitating for Zucker's removal, while Trump let the insults fly on Tuesday.
"Fake News CNN is looking at big management changes now that they got caught falsely pushing their phony Russian stories," Trump tweeted. "Ratings way down!"
"CNN just posted it's most-watched second quarter in history," the network's communications department shot back. "Those are the facts."
According to Nielsen's second quarter ratings, released on Tuesday, CNN is up 10 percent year-over-year in prime time and 25 percent overall. It is running third overall in the cable wars, behind Fox News but also MSNBC, the openly liberal outlet that has seen a dramatic 86 percent spike in prime-time ratings.
The new round of controversy has rekindled a briefly dormant cable news war between Fox News and CNN, with top talent from both outlets basking in the failings of the other.
Last week, CNN anchor John King likened Fox News's "Fox & Friends" to "state TV."
This week, Fox News anchors Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are flooding the airwaves with coverage of CNN's controversies, returning the favor after CNN leaned into reporting of former Fox anchor Bill O'Reilly, who left the network amid a slew of sexual harassment allegations.
"Hey CNN, when will you fire Zucker?" Hannity tweeted. "He has destroyed the network with lies and VERY FAKE NEWS."
CNN has been registering small acts of protest against the administration by focusing on Trump's treatment of the press, with chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta leading the charge in demanding more on-camera briefings.
The network sent a courtroom sketch artist to do a rendering of White House press secretary Sean Spicer at an off-camera briefing last week. Spicer has repeatedly ignored questions from Acosta and chided him in a tense off-camera exchange on Monday.
"There's no camera on, Jim," Spicer said as Acosta shouted questions at him.
CNN has displayed chyrons at the bottom of the screen accusing the president of lying and is airing a television ad with footage of anchors lecturing White House officials and musing about Trump being impeached. Earlier this year, CNN refused to run a Trump campaign ad because it cast the mainstream media as "fake news."
The network has absorbed withering criticism from the right for its relentless focus on Russia and overwhelmingly negative coverage of Trump. A Harvard study found that CNN's coverage of Trump was negative 93 percent of the time over the course of his first 100 days in office.
CNN has also taken a hit from other controversies; it cut ties with comedian Kathy Griffin for taking a photo with a fake severed head meant to look like Trump. CNN also canceled a series with documentary maker Reza Aslan after he cursed at the president over Twitter.
CNN also recently had to walk back a report authored by its top network talent, including anchor Jake Tapper and political analyst Gloria Borger, stating that former FBI Director James Comey would refute Trump's claims that he was not the target of an investigation.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey confirmed that he told Trump three times that he was not the target of an investigation.
"I think this is the day when the left rues ever coming up with the phrase 'fake news,' because now we have the evidence," Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka said Tuesday on a Breitbart podcast. "We have the consequences of systematic generation of fake news happening at the epicenter of one of the places that was producing the most of it."
The CNN source responded: "They've made it fairly clear they view this as a war. We view it as determination to seek truth and hold the powerful accountable regardless of how difficult they try to make it."