Former CNN Employee Says Outlet Has No Real Ethical Code
A man is seen holding with a smart device in front of a CNN logo in this photo illustration on 2 July, 2017. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto)
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Despite revelations that Chris Cuomo secretly advised brother Andrew Cuomo on how to handle multiple allegations of sexual harassment, the “Cuomo Prime Time” host still has his cushy job for one reason, according to a former employee: CNN has no ethical standards.

Most news outlets have well-developed guidelines laying down red lines governing appropriate journalistic behavior. “Almost no political activity is OK” for reporters, according to the Society of Professional Journalists. “Many employers’ codes of ethics are much more specific than SPJ’s code about their employees’ involvement in politics.”

National Public Radio’s “code, for instance, says quite bluntly that ‘NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies’ concerning issues that NPR covers — which is pretty much everything,” SPJ continued.

“A journalist can be fired for violating an employer’s ethical rules,” SPJ said.

But that won’t happen at CNN, because it has no such code, according to a former CNN employee.

“You won’t see any rules that are etched in stone so that a violation could be a firing offense,” Steve Holmes, who spent a decade at CNN before retiring two years ago, told The Hill.

“They can’t say that [Cuomo]’s violated any written policies because there aren’t any, period,” Holmes said.

CNN actually fought a legal battle in Florida three years ago to keep its editorial guidelines secret. The few excerpts that the cable news network had to release were marked “Attorneys’ Eyes Only,” barring even the parties involved in the lawsuit from reading them.

“That’s a lot of lawyering to protect documents that other news organizations put online for all to view,” wrote The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple in 2018.

It’s not clear how Chris Cuomo’s actions are affected by the guidelines. Cuomo responded to the revelation regarding him and his brother, broken by The Washington Post, by offering an on-air apology to his viewers and colleagues. “It was a mistake,” he said. “I’m truly sorry.”

Cuomo also defended himself on the grounds that “I’ve never tried to influence this network’s coverage of my brother.”

But he admits advising his brother, and those on the call told the Post that he guided his brother on how to respond to media questions — and the reporters he would know most intimately would be those on CNN.

The network greeted the news by immediately announcing that Cuomo would suffer no consequences, although several of his colleagues complained about his actions publicly or privately.

Brian Stelter, an inveterate critic of Fox News Channel and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” called out Cuomo on the air.

“If Chris Cuomo wants to call into strategy sessions with his brother’s aides, shouldn’t he take a leave of absence from CNN?” Stelter asked.

Jake Tapper also had scathing words for Cuomo’s actions in The New York Times last Thursday. “Chris, in his apology that he delivered on air, said that he put us in a bad spot. And I would also agree with that.”

“I work very hard to be fair and to be ethical and to not cross lines,” he continued. “We all reflect on each other.”

CNN President Jeffrey Zucker responded to their internal concerns last week by saying publicly that Chris Cuomo would not play by “special rules.” But as it turns out, that’s because there are none.

“Those parameters should have been set up, publicized and followed from the very beginning,” Matthew Hall, the SPJ president, told The Hill. “That they haven’t been is a black eye for Chris Cuomo, CNN and the journalism industry as a whole.”

SPJ previously insisted CNN investigate Chris Cuomo over allegations that his brother gave him preferable access to COVID-19 tests during the early days of the pandemic.


Holmes said these repeated instances of public backlash should have given the network an impetus to adopt more rigorous ethical guidelines.

“But what do they do when they don’t do anything? What kind of signals does it send that you don’t do anything?” he asked.

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