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CNN under ethics scrutiny following Cuomo revelations

CNN is coming under internal and external criticism over its approach to conflicts of interest for journalists after host Chris CuomoChris CuomoCNN insults #MeToo movement, provides happy ending for Jeffrey Toobin Club for Growth bashes CNN in social media ad The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Citizens' Climate Lobby - Biden, Capito meet today as deadline looms MORE escaped disciplinary action despite advising his brother, New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoPuerto Rico's former governor stages a comeback New York hits 70 percent vaccination goal, lifts COVID-19 restrictions Hundreds of people given expired vaccine doses in Times Square MORE (D), on how to handle sexual misconduct allegations.

Current and former employees have criticized the host of “Cuomo Prime Time” for the transgression, but a retired CNN ethics executive says the lack of clear cut policies are largely to blame.

“You won't see any rules that are etched in stone so that a violation could be a firing offense,” said Steve Holmes, who retired from CNN in 2019 after working at the network for more than a decade.

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“And I think you see sort of the results. I mean the Chris Cuomo thing, they can't say that he's violated any written policies because there aren't any, period,” said Holmes, who reported to the executive vice president of news standards and practices when he was at CNN.

Last week, CNN staffers started weighing in on Cuomo advising his brother.

“I cannot imagine a world in which anybody in journalism thinks that that was appropriate,” Jake TapperJacob (Jake) Paul TapperPolice investigating death of TV anchor who uncovered Clinton tarmac meeting as suicide Mississippi governor: Biden goal of 70 percent of US vaccinated by July 4 is 'arbitrary' Energy secretary: Adversaries have capability of shutting down US power grid MORE said in an interview last week with Kara Swisher of The New York Times.

That same week, Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s show “Reliable Sources,” suggested a leave of absence might be in order.

“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.

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Other employees raised their concerns during a town hall last week by asking CNN President Jeff Zucker why the network hadn’t sanctioned Cuomo even though he admitted to crossing an ethical line.

Temporarily suspending Cuomo would be pointless, Zucker replied, and would only be “punishment for the sake of punishing.”

A slap on the wrist is better than nothing, Holmes said, and would serve as an acknowledgement that ethics matters to the network.

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?”

Cuomo first came under scrutiny last year when he came to his brother’s defense and defended the governor for his response to the coronavirus.

Earlier this year, Cuomo faced allegations that he and other family members had received preferential treatment from New York state health officials early on during the pandemic.

After those revelations, the Society of Professional Journalists called for an internal investigation and for the CNN host to publicly account for his behavior.

Cuomo last month apologized on air after The Washington Post reported on him advising his brother.

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Former University of Nevada, Las Vegas ethics professor Alicia Shepard, a media consultant and former NPR ombudsman, took a harder line, wondering if Cuomo should be fired given how other news anchors have lost their jobs over the years.

“Look what happened to Brian Williams,” Shepard said, referring to the former NBC “Nightly News” anchor who was removed after admitting he exaggerated stories about coming under enemy fire in Iraq.

“He was anchor of a prestigious nightly TV news show and because of something happened years before he lost that perch,” Shepard said.

Williams was later named MSNBC’s chief breaking news anchor.

“News organizations have an obligation to hold those responsible for errors accountable,” said Dan Shelley, CEO of the Radio Television Digital News Association.

Matthew Hall, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said, “Each outlet should have a policy, explain the policy to staff, expect the staff to follow the policy and then actually enforce the policy.”

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CNN’s ostensible reasoning for having ethical guidelines, as opposed to hard and fast rules, Holmes said, was because it allowed them to handle problems on a case-by-case basis. Holmes said that also allowed CNN to deal with people who violated the guidelines depending upon how they felt about them.

CNN did not respond to questions about its ethics policy or how it was applied to Cuomo.

At last week’s town hall, Zucker said CNN didn’t have special rules only for Cuomo, while adding that having a powerful governor as a brother was a “very unique” situation.

Shepard, though, said the potential for trouble should have been obvious from the start.

“I will admit to being intrigued by the banter of the brothers last April,” Shepard said. “But even then, having friends ask at the time ‘Is this kosher?’ I said, ‘No it’s not.’ Because you never know what’s going to happen.”