November 13, 2007
WWE Grapples with CNN Documentary: Smacking Down the News

Journalism is fundamentally altered in an age of convergence culture. This isn't particularly new news for my colleagues over at the Center for Future Civic Media here at MIT in the Program in Comparative Media Studies. Nor is it new news for many of the people I spent time with back at Western Kentucky University when I was a journalism student in the School of Journalism and Broadcasting.

It's not even new news for the folks in the trenches of rural weekly journalism, described as the cockroaches of the journalism world by my editor at The Ohio County Times-News.

But I was reminded how talking back to the official journalists is possible in new ways in a new media environment, as was evidenced by a recent controversy between the WWE and CNN.

Now, first, let me admit my many biases here. CNN is a member of Turner Broadcasting, which is a member of the Convergence Culture Consortium. On the other hand, WWE was officially involved with the class I taught here on professional wrestling, so I have worked with them as well.

CNN aired a piece called "Death Grip" on serious issues in the wrestling world: the Chris Benoit tragedy and steroids, among other issues. Those who created the documentary interviewed WWE wrestler John Cena in preparation for the piece. What aired on the documentary from Cena was quite controversial. They showed a quote from Cena, which ended with, "I can't say I never did them, but you can never provide I did."

The piece caused an outrage, and many fans could not believe what Cena said...until WWE revealed it wasn't what he actually said and was rather a bit of clever editing from the producers of the piece. On WWE's site, they put up a video of what CNN aired, and then they showed the unedited video, in which Cena said "absolutely not" in response to the question of whether he takes steroids.

As Dave Meltzer points out, "The quote that they used was part of a long answer regarding society, that whenever an athlete sets a standard or does something impressive, people immediately accuse them of doing performance enhancing drugs. His response was that people are going to believe what they want, and even though he's passed drug tests, people will still believe what they believe. But, he noted, no matter what they believe or what he says, they can't prove it."

When the WWE revealed the editing trickery on their site, CNN subsequently re-edited the piece in replays to include his "absolutely not" answer; however, the producers have still not corrected its transcript.

After situations in the past, such as when Mick Foley was shown video of kids wrestling in their back yard and said that they were just playing around, then had his comments aired against kids smashing each other with weapons in a news special, the WWE has been particularly wary of dealing with the press, which may be why they chose to record their own feed or obtain unedited footage of Cena's interview. Without a doubt, it came in handy in this instance.

In a previous generation, a misattribution would lead to a short line of correction at the most. The WWE, however, has proven that the Internet provides important tools to protect an individual, or a company, against being misrepresented in the media. We may not all have a platform like WWE to correct these mistakes, but Web 2.0 tools do give us the chance to do what big journalism has often been bad at doing: correcting mistakes, or admit when they've been called on doing something suspect.

The controversy brings to light the many ways in which journalism needs to incorporate a feedback loop, to keep situations like what happened in the "Death Grip" special from happening. WWE has pulled the story from its site now that the producers have corrected the piece, but the video feeds are still available.

Nevertheless, the story has taken root in the wrestling fan community, and fans are discussing how this move compromised what could have been a look at serious issues surrounding the death of Benoit in June.