Chris Cuomo demands $125 million from CNN, accuses other hosts of 'smear campaign' against him

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Chris Cuomo is a journalist scorned and he seems determined to make CNN pay a steep price for that. An arbitration demand filed today by Cuomo’s attorneys says he wants $125 million to go away. According to the demand, CNN has destroyed Cuomo’s reputation and made it “impossible” for him to find a similar job in the future.

“As a result of Turner’s indefensible choice to unceremoniously fire him, Cuomo has been damaged in countless ways,” states a demand for arbitration filed Wednesday from Cuomo’s Freedman + Taitelman LLP and Clayman Rosenberg Kirshner & Linder LLP attorneys.

“Cuomo has had his journalistic integrity unjustifiably smeared, making it difficult if not impossible for Cuomo to find similar work in the future and damaging him in amounts exceeding $125 million, which includes not only the remaining salary owed under the Agreement, but future wages lost as a result of CNN’s efforts to destroy his reputation in violation of the Agreement,” the filing adds.

The demand letter alleges that former CEO Jeff Zucker and VP Allison Gollust were heavily involved in efforts to promote Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the network for ratings. The letter claims Zucker and Gollust provided Gov. Cuomo with talking points.

During the time when Gov. Cuomo’s appearances on Cuomo’s program were creating significant value for the network, CNN, through executives Zucker and Zucker’s second-incommand, Allison Gollust (“Gollust”), made a concerted effort to cement and strengthen the network’s ties to Gov. Cuomo and his administration and control his media presence for CNN’s exclusive benefit. CNN pushed Gov. Cuomo not to appear on other networks, intimating that not honoring CNN’s request might threaten Cuomo’s professional standing with the network.

CNN, through Zucker and Gollust, also requested that Gov. Cuomo hold his daily COVID-19 press conference at a time that was most suitable for the network based on its program schedule and when its ratings were weakest.

Zucker and Gollust acted as advisors to Gov. Cuomo during this time by providing him with talking points and strategies for responding to statements made by then-President Donald Trump. There is no question that, given the ratings and value Gov. Cuomo was generating for CNN, protecting him and his reputation was in CNN’s best interests.

While Gov. Cuomo was riding high as a widely popular leader in the Democratic Party, CNN was more than happy to benefit from the connection between the governor and CNN’s most popular news anchor.

The claim about talking points has been reported before. Gov. Cuomo sent a text saying, “Ask Jeff to call me” prior to one appearance on CNN but Zucker has claimed he doesn’t remember speaking to Cuomo that day. Normally, that denial would carry some weight but in this case Chris Cuomo is probably in a very good position to know whether or not Zucker provided his brother with talking points. In fact, it’s conceivable Andrew Cuomo could provide and affidavit directly contradicting Zucker’s lack of recall on this point.

Cuomo’s letter goes into great detail about how and why he was fired. It claims the supposed revelations of his efforts to help his brother were all known to CNN prior to CNN reacting to them. It also claims the allegation of sexual misconduct against Chris Cuomo was an attempt to hurt him while he was already on the ropes.

On December 1, 2021, an employment lawyer sent CNN a letter containing allegations of sexual misconduct against Cuomo made by an anonymous person who claimed to be a former colleague of Cuomo’s well before he joined CNN. The allegations were entirely fabricated, and the timing of the letter strongly suggests it had the objective of battering Cuomo with false accusations while he was already on the ropes…

CNN did not even attempt to investigate the veracity of the anonymous allegations against Cuomo before deciding to terminate his employment.

The demand letter also faults CNN for allowing its other host to disparage him in what it dubs a smear campaign [emphasis added]:

An additional, and similarly significant, legally unjustifiable breach of the Agreement was the complete failure by Zucker to abide by the terms of the Agreement by failing to instruct CNN employees not to disparage Cuomo. The Agreement requires that CNN “make reasonable efforts to instruct its employees not to make any intentionally disparaging comments regarding [Cuomo] in the context of [Cuomo’s] business and professional activities.” In fact, not only did Zucker and CNN fail to instruct CNN employees not to disparage Cuomo, as required by the Agreement, but they themselves openly disparaged Cuomo in violation of the Agreement, with Zucker leading the charge. Before Cuomo was terminated, Zucker at first claimed that he had been unaware of Cuomo’s discussions with Gov. Cuomo’s aides, when Zucker had done the same thing himself. After Cuomo’s termination, Zucker claimed that Cuomo had broken his word and that Cuomo misrepresented the extent of his support for his brother. Other CNN staff joined in the calculated campaign to smear Cuomo and destroy his reputation. Jake Tapper, a CNN anchor, publicly assailed Cuomo’s ethics as a journalist and falsely claimed that Cuomo “threatened” Zucker. Don Lemon, another CNN anchor, falsely claimed that Cuomo had been “found to break with those journalistic standards and then [was] paid handsomely for it.” Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, said Cuomo was “acting like an unpaid staffer” for Gov. Cuomo and had been “trying to burn the place down” after CNN terminated him. Countless anonymous CNN staffers slammed Cuomo in the press, calling him “both journalistically and morally immoral,” saying “his biggest crime was he lied to Zucker,” and labeling him “toxic and distracting.” CNN itself released a statement that Cuomo “made a number of accusations that are patently false” and that he was terminated for a “lack of candor.” A full account of CNN’s smear campaign conducted in direct violation of the express terms of the Agreement is set forth in paragraphs 74-87. This campaign led to widespread news coverage that ultimately made Cuomo an outcast from the world of journalism.

I’m not an attorney and I have no idea if Chris Cuomo’s demand for $125 million is off base or not. But having read through some of the demand letter, I think he does have a somewhat credible case that CNN and his former boss Jeff Zucker were making him into a scapegoat when they had also been neck deep in bringing Gov. Andrew Cuomo onto the network at a time when he was a hot commodity.