Chris Cuomo is burning down the house. Perhaps we should stand back simply to admire the flames.
On Wednesday, Cuomo asked for an arbitrator to award him $125 million because CNN fired him for what even a first-year journalism student would have understood to be egregious ethical violations.
Cuomo’s Trumpian-style lack of ethics is old news. But his rationale for demanding enough money to make a tech exec envious is truly novel: I wasn’t the only dishonest journalist on CNN’s payroll.
Cuomo drags Lemon into the mud
Exhibit No. 1 for the plaintiff is Don Lemon, the CNN host whom Cuomo used to refer to as his “brother.” (Which is rich given how quick Cuomo was to nuke journalistic ethics to bail out his brother Andrew, the former New York governor.)
In November, actor Jussie Smollett testified under oath that Lemon had tipped him off that police in Chicago didn’t buy his claim that a pair of MAGA-hat wearing thugs had emerged from a snowstorm to beat him up and wrap a rope around his neck.
Now, in Lemon’s defense, hardly anyone outside the corridors of CNN believed Smollett’s saga when the fable was first told. It shouldn’t have been shocking to learn that Chicago cops, who hear more credible yarns from truant eighth-graders, had their doubts.
But I digress. Don Lemon’s decision as a self-confessed journalist to alert Smollett that the cops were on to him was an ethical breach almost as bad as helping a politician – who just happens to be your brother – cobble together a defense against sexual harassment allegations.
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“Intervening in the ongoing investigation by texting Smollett was an inexcusable breach of ethics,” Cuomo’s lawyers wrote in the arbitration filing. “Yet CNN did nothing; Lemon was not disciplined in any way.”
Inexcusable breach of ethics. Employer looks the other way. Cuomo knows all about such things.
Lawyers blast Toobin, too
For Exhibit No. 2, there is Jeffrey Toobin, the news network’s chief legal analyst, who was suspended by CNN in October 2020 and fired by The New Yorker after he was caught – ah, enjoying himself – during a video call with colleagues at the magazine.
CNN welcomed Toobin back into the family last June despite what Cuomo’s lawyers describe as a “sordid act of sexual harassment.”
Ethical violations. Sexual harassment. Chris Cuomo. Somehow these words just keep colliding.
Permanent daylight saving time?: Big government better keep its hands off my watch!
For Exhibit 3, Team Cuomo calls to the stand former CNN President Jeff Zucker, who resigned in February after his personal relationship with chief marketing officer Allison Gollust was disclosed. Gollust also resigned.
“As long as CNN’s ratings would not be hurt, Zucker and Gollust were more than willing to overlook major transgressions by CNN personalities such as Don Lemon and Jake Tapper, or even to engage in blatant misconduct themselves,” Cuomo’s lawyers declared.
Finally, Cuomo gets to the crux of it. It was, is and always will be about ratings. What’s the value of an old-fashioned ethical standard or two weighed in the balance of a journalistic celebrity who can attract enough eyeballs to pay rock-star level salaries?
Ukraine war diary: I grew up in Russia. Now I fight in Kyiv for Ukraine
Let’s be honest: On one level, CNN is the best reality TV series going. Who needs “Desperate Housewives of Missoula” when the Cuomo vs. Lemon vs. Zucker cage match is ready for a rumble?
Yet, on another level – one I like to call the real world – the timing of Cuomo’s high dive into the mud bog is sad. After all, there is a war on. I mean a real war, not the one inside CNN’s C-suite.
War coverage has been outstanding
CNN’s journalists have shown a masterful level of skill and professionalism – and in many cases, remarkable courage – in covering that war in Ukraine. This should be their time to both report the news without internal distractions and to receive well-deserved appreciation from their audiences and their journalistic peers.
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Chris Cuomo has shown why it matters to call out and to evenhandedly discipline bad journalism, including ethical violations.
His former CNN colleagues – along with journalists from dozens of other news outlets –have shown every day for the past three weeks why good journalism is so vitally important.
Cuomo may eventually get his money. But I’ll put my money on those other journalists, the ones who understand that serving their audiences’ needs are far more important than serving themselves.
Tim Swarens is deputy opinion editor of USA TODAY.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chris Cuomo drags down CNN even as former colleagues cover the war