The specter of a $100 million libel suit scared CNN into retracting a poorly reported story that slimed an ally of President Trump’s — and forcing out the staffers responsible for it, The Post has learned.
The cable network’s coverage of Trump transition team member Anthony Scaramucci came amid federal scrutiny of corporate parent Time Warner’s pending purchase by AT&T — and the widespread belief among media execs that CNN President Jeff Zucker can’t survive a merger.
CNN immediately caved after Scaramucci, a financier and frequent network guest, cried foul and threatened to take legal action, sources said Tuesday.
Scaramucci got an unusual public apology but still hired a top Manhattan lawyer to put further pressure on CNN and “look after [his] interests in this matter,” one source said.
Sources also said the three journalists responsible for the retracted story — reporter Tom Frank, editor Eric Lichtblau and Lex Haris, who headed the CNN Investigates unit — were urged to resign.
“They called them in and said they’d pay out their contracts, but they should leave immediately,” one source said.
Zucker was afraid of facing a high-profile suit from Scaramucci while the US Justice Department weighs the proposed $85.4 billion media merger.
Meanwhile, a CNN insider said staffers are furious at “having lost the moral high ground because of this story.” Sources said Zucker tried to rally his staff during a Tuesday morning conference call.
“Zucker stressed that this issue was a ‘lapse in editorial standards’ and said it was a lesson to all reporters and editors to continue to strive for strong, accurate reporting,” a source said.
At last week’s Cannes Lions festival in France — where Zucker boasted that viewers trust CNN “more than ever” — rumors were rife that he’d be out of a job if the AT&T deal goes through.
“It’s not just Jeff Zucker, all Time Warner executives are anxious about if they will survive the merger,” a media source said Tuesday.
“What is interesting is that the AT&T execs who will decide who goes and who stays are [AT&T CEO] Randall Stephenson and [AT&T Entertainment Group CEO] John Stankey — who have a very good relationship with the current administration.”
Trump — a fierce critic of CNN — publicly opposed the merger during the campaign. Sources said Scaramucci, a frequent guest on CNN to defend the president, was treated like a star at Saturday’s wedding of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Louise Linton in Washington, DC.
“Everyone at the White House has been high-fiving each other over Anthony’s success in embarrassing CNN,” one attendee said.
“Trump is thoroughly enjoying this, and Anthony got endless slaps on the back at Steve’s wedding.”
The retracted story was based on a single, anonymous source who claimed the Senate Intelligence Committee was probing ties between the Trump administration and a Russian government-owned investment fund.
The story, posted on CNN.com on Thursday, also claimed the Treasury Department was believed to be investigating Scaramucci over a purported Jan. 16 meeting with the fund’s director general.
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