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President Donald Trump and his administration enflamed a tense relationship with CNN this week, as deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders touted a video aimed against the network even though she said she didn’t know if it was accurate.
It started when Trump on June 27, 2017, tweeted about the resignation of three CNN journalists responsible for a retracted story that had linked Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci and other Trump allies with a Russian investment fund supposedly being investigated by the Senate.
(CNN is enjoying record ratings, by the way.)
A Breitbart.com reporter asked Huckabee Sanders about Trump’s criticism of other news outlets in another tweet at the White House briefing that day. She said the other outlets "can't be trusted to report the news," and suggested that a recent video proves it.
"There are multiple other instances where that outlet that you referenced has been repeatedly wrong and had to point that out or had to correct it," she said, refusing to refer to CNN by name.
"There's a video circulating now — whether it's accurate or not, I don't know — but I would encourage everyone in this room and, frankly, everybody across the country to take a look at it," Sanders continued. "I think if it is accurate, I think it's a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism."
Her admonishment caught our attention, in part because she didn’t mention what the video was, or what it was about — but most of all, because a White House spokesperson was directing Americans to watch a video of questionable veracity.
Thanks to a later social media post from the president, it’s clear Sanders was referring to a YouTube video released June 26 called "American Pravda."
The video purports to show a CNN producer admitting that coverage of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election isn’t warranted.
In the video, a man named John Bonifield is identified as a "CNN supervising producer" and shown talking to an unidentified videographer.
Bonifield said that the network is focusing on the Russia investigation under the direction of CEO Jeff Zucker to bolster ratings, and that the story is "mostly bull---- right now."
Trump posted the video and a follow-up video about CNN contributor Van Jones saying "the Russia thing is just a big nothing-burger" on his Instagram account.
Both videos came from a group called Project Veritas, an organization run by conservative activist James O’Keefe.
Project Veritas specializes in creating undercover sting videos of its targets, usually media organizations or left-leaning institutions. The group has created undercover videos in the past casting NPR and other organizations in a poor light.
Perhaps their most well-known project is a series of videos released in 2009 that focused on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. The nonprofit advocacy group put together voter registration drives and worked on issues for low-income communities.
O’Keefe and a woman named Hannah Giles went to ACORN offices in several cities posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend, looking for tax advice for starting a brothel. The recordings were edited to show that ACORN workers readily offered advice on dodging taxes for an illegal business, although ACORN disputed the events happened as shown. The row led to Congress cutting federal funding to the group, which has since shut down.
Project Veritas is often criticized for its methods, especially for the way its operatives surreptitiously record subjects and edit footage to play up specific quotes.
O’Keefe had to pay $100,000 to former ACORN worker Juan Carlos Vera in San Bernadino, Calif., for not telling Vera he was being recorded, which is against the law in that state. O’Keefe also noted in the settlement that he was unaware that Vera had reported O’Keefe’s story about planning an illegal brothel to police.
O’Keefe and three other conservative activists also pleaded guilty in May 2010 to a misdemeanor count of entering federal property under false pretenses when they attempted to access former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in New Orleans to tamper with her phones. O’Keefe was sentenced to three years of probation, a fine and community service.
O’Keefe and Project Veritas now face a $1 million lawsuit over videos released last year that allegedly showed Democratic misconduct during the 2016 election.
This is not the first time O’Keefe has gone after CNN.
In August 2010, O’Keefe tried to embarrass then-CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau by inviting her to a meeting on a "palace of pleasure" filled with what the network called sexually explicit props under false pretenses, then recording it without her knowledge. The scheme fell through when Boudreau did not agree to board the boat.
In February 2017, O’Keefe suggested he was targeting CNN a couple of days before releasing more than 100 hours of audio recordings of CNN employees from 2009 in a "WikiLeaks-style dump."
The newest CNN video has characteristics of his other videos that raised ethical questions. Bonifield appeared unaware he was being recorded, and the unnamed videographer apparently misrepresented himself to Bonifield.
The network shared that Bonifield met the video shooter through a peer-mentorship program. The videographer had said he wanted to work in journalism, so Bonifield met with him five times as a mentor.
Furthermore, while the video calls Bonifield a supervising producer at CNN, he works on medical stories — not politics or investigations. He also is based out of Atlanta, where the video was filmed, and not CNN’s Washington bureau.
Project Veritas told PolitiFact that all of the video was shot in June, most of it on June 3, in Atlanta.
The group would not reveal the identity of the videographer, whom spokesman Stephen Gordon insisted needed to remain undercover to perform his job duties.
CNN said Bonifield is welcome to his opinion about the network’s coverage, as are the rest of the network’s employees.
"CNN stands by our medical producer John Bonifield," the network said in a statement. "Diversity of personal opinion is what makes CNN strong, we welcome it and embrace it."
New Orleans Times-Picayune, "ACORN 'gotcha' man arrested in attempt to tamper with Mary Landrieu's office phones," Jan. 26, 2010
CBS News, "ACORN, Stung by Scandal, to be Dissolved," March 22, 2010
New Orleans Times-Picayune, "James O'Keefe and friends plead guilty in Mary Landrieu office caper," May 26, 2010
CNN, "Fake pimp from ACORN videos tries to 'punk' CNN correspondent," Sept. 29, 2010
Los Angeles Times, "Conservative activist pays $100,000 to former ACORN worker," March 7, 2013
Washington Post, "Two Democratic operatives lose jobs after James O’Keefe sting," Oct. 19, 2016
Washington Examiner, "James O'Keefe hints that his next big target is CNN," Feb. 21, 2017
Politico, "Project Veritas 'CNN Leaks' fall flat," Feb. 23, 2017
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Interview with Barbara Levin, CNN spokeswoman, June 28, 2017
Interview with Stephen Gordon, Project Veritas spokesman, June 28, 2017
Interview with Steven Cheung, White House spokesman, June 28, 2017