Did Smollett throw Don Lemon under the journalistic bus?

AP Photo/Paul Beaty, File

Do a few texts between Don Lemon and Jussie Smollett rise to the Chris Cuomo  level for ethics violations? Smollett raised the issue in his testimony yesterday, in which he told the jury that his first indication that police didn’t believe his hate-crime story came from his friend the prime-time news host. The New York Post thinks that Smollett just threw his pal under the bus, and that Lemon made it worse by ignoring it:

As he took the stand Monday, Smollett, 39, had told the court that he first knew that police doubted his race-hate attack was real after getting a text message from Lemon, saying that was key in his decision not to hand his phone records over to cops.

The testimony quickly sparked comparisons between Lemon and his former CNN love-“brother” Chris Cuomo, who over the weekend was fired for his own meddling in his brother Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment scandal.

But while Cuomo refused to report on his brother’s scandal, Lemon ended his Monday night show with a report on the latest news from the ex-“Empire” star’s trial — with no mention of his own involvement.

Is there a journalistic bus at CNN under which one can be tossed? If so, it runs on a very spotty schedule. It took more than a year for Jeff Zucker to enforce them with Chris Cuomo, after all, and those violations were both egregious and undeniable.

As low as the Cuomo bar might be, this doesn’t appear to cross it — although it doesn’t necessarily make it all right, either. Colby Hall objects to the criticism over the texts, first with a non-sequitur potshot at Fox News, but then more substantively:

Yes, that’s a news guy on Fox & Friends throwing journalistic shade on CNN by asking “should we be helping the people cover?” Of course, Chris Cuomo has been fired by CNN, and Lemon’s texting with an acquaintance of his that’s in the news, a fact of which, according to Fox News, he disclosed on air at the time of reporting?

First of all, texting a subject who is in the news is how a lot of reporting gets done. If an anchor is trying to prepare someone for an interview or get them on their show, it is entirely expected to exchange information about the story, which in this instance appears to be the fact that the police didn’t believe his story.

It’s not clear when Smollett and Lemon texted about this development in the story, but it was a widely believed conceit within roughly a week of the story breaking.

Lemon probably should have at least broached that communication in his coverage of the trial yesterday, if for no other reason than to pre-empt this predictable criticism. Journalists routinely do “full disclosure” statements on reports and opinions in which they have a personal interest, and that serves to protect the credibility of the person and their platform. Given that Lemon’s name came up in testimony, it was foolish to omit it.

With that said, however, what’s the ethics violation here? This isn’t analogous to Chris Cuomo and his attempts to leverage his media connections to attack his brother’s accusers at all. Even if Lemon got wind of the police’s skepticism before the news broke and passed it along to Smollett, that’s not unethical or unusual, as Hall points out. Reporters build relationships with sources in many cases by trading information, not just receiving it. At least from what we know so far, Lemon didn’t use CNN resources to attempt to pressure witnesses into changing their stories or withdrawing allegations. Nothing about such a tip-off would corrupt a process or leverage undue influence on justice.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize Lemon, but this is pretty weak sauce. And Jeff Zucker has bigger fish to fry at the moment than Lemon’s venial sin of omission last night.

The prosecution resumed its cross-examination of Smollett this morning and wrapped it up this afternoon. Smollett thus far seems to be sticking to his guns on being the victim of a hate crime. (It didn’t go well, according to Twitchy, and John had more on it in another post.) Will the actor deliver a performance that gives this jury room for reasonable doubt? We’ll see, and we’ll see how CNN covers the eventual verdict when it comes. The jury will likely get the case sometime this week.