Ben Smith CNN’s Chris Cuomo in the wrong kind of primetime; does a source death change interview rules?; News21 has a new project

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Good Wednesday morning. More layoffs hit GateHouse papers on Tuesday. But before that, did you see the video of CNN’s Chris Cuomo nearly getting into a fight with some random guy at a bar?

“I’ll (bleeping) ruin your (bleep)!”

This time, Sonny, it actually wasn’t about business. It was strictly personal.

CNN host Chris Cuomo had a nasty exchange with a heckler at a New York bar Sunday over a reference to “The Godfather.” This isn’t a joke. I’ll link to the video here, but be warned, it features some very R-rated language, mostly from Cuomo.

The host of “Chris Cuomo Primetime” was angry that a stranger called him Fredo. That’s a reference to the dim-witted, double-crossing brother in “The Godfather.” In the video, Cuomo said calling Italians Fredo is like using the N-word. He also threatened the heckler several times, saying, “I’ll (expletive) ruin your (expletive). I’ll (expletive) throw you down these stairs like a (expletive) punk.”

On Tuesday, after the video went viral, Cuomo tweeted:

“Appreciate all the support but – truth is I should be better than the guys baiting me. This happens all the time these days. Often in front of my family. But there is a lesson: no need to add to the ugliness; I should be better than what I oppose.”

President Donald Trump couldn’t let it pass. He tweeted making fun of Cuomo and CNN:

“I thought Chris was Fredo also. The truth hurts. Totally lost it! Low ratings @CNN.”

But you might be surprised to learn who did support Cuomo: his Fox News rival Sean Hannity, who tweeted:

“I say good for @ChrisCuomo. He’s out with his 9 year old daughter,  and his wife, and this guy is being a jackass in front of his family. Imho Chris Cuomo has zero to apologize for. He deserves the apology.”

Whether it was Hannity’s tweet or something else, Trump tweeted again on Tuesday afternoon criticizing any Republican for supporting Cuomo. Trump tweeted:

“It always happens! When a Conservative does even a fraction of what Chris Cuomo did with his lunatic ranting, raving, & cursing, they get destroyed by the Fake News. But when a Liberal Democrat like Chris Cuomo does it, Republicans immediately come to his defense. We never learn!”

CNN put out a statement supporting Cuomo: “Chris Cuomo defended himself when he was verbally attacked with the use of an ethnic slur in an orchestrated setup. We completely support him.”


Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges. (New York State Sex Offender Registry via AP)

Here’s an interesting ethical question for journalists: If someone tells you something off the record or on background, and later that person dies, can you then reveal what that person told you?

This is coming up now because New York Times columnist James B. Stewart published a column Monday about a conversation he had a year ago with alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who died from an apparent suicide over the weekend. At the time, Stewart was working on a story about Tesla co-founder Elon Musk and heard Epstein was giving Musk advice. (Epstein and Musk denied those rumors.)

In Monday’s column, Stewart recalled a 90-minute interview inside Epstein’s Manhattan mansion. There were a few interesting details of Epstein’s life, as well as intriguing comments from Epstein in which he hinted he had dirt on powerful people. But he never named those people and never said what, exactly, the dirt was.

In his column, Stewart wrote, “When I contacted Mr. Epstein, he readily agreed to an interview. The caveat was that the conversation would be ‘on background,’ which meant I could use the information as long as I didn’t attribute it directly to him. (I consider that condition to have lapsed with his death.)”

Is that true? Are Epstein’s comments fair game now that he’s dead? I decided to check in with the two people I trust most when it comes to journalism ethics: my Poynter colleagues Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, who is not only the senior vice president at Poynter, but the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter.

My gut tells me — and Tomkins agreed — that Stewart’s time with Epstein should have remained on background, meaning it never becomes public. The exception would be if there was some greater public interest that the information become known — such as actual proof that others were engaging in illegal activity that was or is harmful to others.

McBride, however, agreed with Stewart, saying that when a source dies there’s no reason to keep the interview private unless the information would cause harm to an innocent person.

In the end, even Stewart wrote, “When I later reflected on our interview, I was struck by how little information Mr. Epstein had actually provided.”

Maybe for that reason, what Stewart learned on background should have stayed in the background.

When GateHouse and Gannett announced plans last week to merge, there was a fear that layoffs could soon hit both newspaper chains. On Tuesday, GateHouse papers laid off several workers, but that’s likely more to do with disappointing quarterly results for New Media, which owns GateHouse, than a possible merger.

My story on Poynter.org details layoffs at several GateHouse shops. The worst hit was the Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, which parted ways with 14 employees, including five in the newsroom. That includes Ellis Williams, a sportswriter who accepted a job offer to join the Oklahoman only to have that offer withdrawn.

All this comes less than three months after GateHouse laid off several dozen journalists at newspapers all across the country. Meanwhile, the GateHouse-Gannett merger is not a done deal. As I mentioned in Tuesday’s newsletter, the New York Post reported that the executives are on a road trip this week in hopes of convincing investors to support the merger.


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