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CNN facing renewed ethics scrutiny over Chris Cuomo

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

As of last week, it appeared that CNN honcho Jeff Zucker was okay with letting Chris Cuomo off with an on-air apology and a promise not to have any more “ethical lapses” in the future. But for some reason, this is a story that seems to have grown legs. More than one of Cuomo’s CNN colleagues have gone public with their own disapproval of his actions and some media figures from other networks have jumped on the bandwagon. For his part, Zucker said that temporarily suspending Cuomo would be “pointless” and amount to “punishment for the sake of punishing.” (Yeah, I don’t know what that was supposed to mean either.) But now the network is coming under criticism from Steve Holmes, who retired from CNN in 2019 and used to report to the network’s executive vice president of news standards and practices. (The Hill)

Holmes, who was an editor at The Washington Post and part of a Pulitzer prize-winning team at The New York Times before joining CNN, said the inaction on Cuomo sends the wrong message.

“For them to sort of just shrug their shoulders and slough it off is just to me like, ‘Hold on people, don’t you see how this looks?’” Holmes said.

“They could do that and take the criticism that it’s too lenient,” he said. “But what do they do when they don’t do anything? What kind of signals does it send that you don’t do anything?”

Earlier this year, the Society of Professional Journalists called for an internal investigation of the matter. University of Nevada Las Vegas ethics professor Alicia Shepard questioned whether or not Cuomo should have simply been fired. She cited the example of Brian Williams who was one of the most prominent anchors at NBC News before his fall from grace. He would up being sent out into the wilderness for a considerable period of time before finally being allowed to come back to work at their sister network, MSNBC.

And as Shepard pointed out, what Williams did basically amounted to a bit of story-telling on late-night talk shows, embellishing his own roles in some stories he had covered many years earlier. In the case of Chris Cuomo, this was an ethics disaster that’s been playing out in real-time on CNN’s airwaves. Yet he was let off with a brief apology.

Originally, this was a story about Chris Cuomo and the poor choices he made. But at this point, Cuomo is really no longer the story. He has owned up to what he did (admittedly only after he was outed) and accepted his “punishment,” as pitiful as it may have been. The real story at this point is about Zucker himself and the culture inside of CNN’s managerial offices. Chris Holmes, who I quoted above, points out that no one can really point to any sort of formal, written policy that Cuomo violated “because there aren’t any. Period.”

According to Holmes, who was certainly in a position to know, Team Zucker has basically been flying by the seat of their pants in terms of ethics. When you simply assume that everyone is going to always do the right thing with no threat of consequences if they don’t, you leave the door open to what we’re seeing play out right now. The rest of the hosts and anchors on CNN don’t want to see this happening because any new hits to CNN’s reputation impact them as well. And they’re clearly not afraid of Zucker’s wrath at this point since they are going public with their complaints.

The responsibility for not seeing this coming also rests on Zucker’s shoulders. As we’ve noted here previously, when Chris Cuomo was hired as a journalist at CNN, his brother had already been in the Governor’s mansion in New York for two years. How was it not obvious from day one that their relationship could lead to problems down the road? And by the time the network actually allowed the younger Cuomo to interview his own brother on the air (multiple times!), alarm bells should have been going off.

Have we been asking the wrong question all along? Perhaps it isn’t Chris Cuomo who needs to go. Maybe it’s Jeff Zucker who needs to resign.