Accuracy in Media

Michael Avenatti, a lawyer made famous by representing adult entertainer Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against President Donald Trump, was found guilty of trying to extort Nike, a global sports apparel brand. Avenatti was a frequent guest on cable news channels, such as CNN and MSNBC and was a prominent critic of Trump.

Now, with Avenatti found guilty of extortion, CNN’s Brian Stelter asked other reporters whether he was wrong to praise Avenatti in a past interview.

Daily Beast reporters Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng, responding to Stelter’s question of whether he was wrong to believe Avenatti was a legitimate political candidate, excused Stelter and the media of any blame.

Stelter once told Avenatti during an interview that he believed Avenatti had a legitimate chance at running for a presidential nomination. Stelter said, “I think President Obama also had a lot of TV star power and that helped him pre-Trump.” He added, “But Trump is more evidence of this. And looking ahead to 2020, one reason I’m taking you seriously as a contender is because of your presence on cable news.”

Instead, both Daily Beast reporters asserted that it was not Stelter’s fault to believe in Avenatti’s then-rising profile because President Donald Trump’s media strategy was to blame. Markay said that Trump would too often “Trump-ify” his opponents and manipulated “the modern media environment” in his favor. Markay said that Avenatti “in many ways, was very similar to Trump” and he “drew a lot of Trump’s critics to him.” As a result of Avenatti’s media manipulation, “A lot of folks did take him very seriously without looking at the extensive personal, financial, legal baggage,” Markay concluded.

Stelter agreed with Markay’s points and added that Avenatti was breaking news and it forced the likes of CNN to interview him and report on any Avenatti-related news. Suebsaeng then agreed with Stelter and Markay and said that “It would have been weird at that time…to not take him seriously.” He said that Avenatti “still had a real-world impact” since Avenatti allegedly played a part in former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen going to prison.

The panel concluded that they must not only analyze attempted manipulation of the media but to resist such manipulation in the future. It was a soft mea culpa, but no one on the panel admitted that the media, CNN, or Stelter violated basic journalistic ethics of trusting a media figure without investigating said person’s background and history. Stelter was wrong for predicting Avenatti’s potential political prospects and assuming Avenatti was a credible public figure and his apology was far from accurate. In the apology, Stelter blamed Avenatti’s “Trump-like mastery of the media” as the reason why he fell for Avenatti’s manipulative tactics.

Avenatti rose to prominence while representing Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, where he accused Trump of defamation. Avenatti also briefly flirted with running for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination but withdrew when he was charged last year with fraud and extortion charges.

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