In a matter of a few days, CNN host Chris Cuomo and contributor April Ryan were involved in separate altercations, both captured on video. A third network figure, host Don Lemon, was accused in a civil suit of harassing behavior stemming from an encounter last summer.
There is no indication that the episodes are related, but CNN has repeatedly suggested the Cuomo encounter was “orchestrated” to provoke the anchor-host. The network sees itself as subject to threats in the wake of relentless criticism and provocations from President Trump.
Some CNN correspondents travel with security when reporting at Trump’s rallies. The network has also reminded its employees about security concerns, but hasn’t said anything specific internally in the wake of the Cuomo, Ryan and Lemon episodes.
A CNN executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly, called the Lemon suit “a shakedown” and pointed a finger at the president for giving people license to attack journalists.
“We are living in a time where journalists are being confronted with orchestrated provocations on Sunday afternoons while out with their families, and shakedowns from people looking to make a quick buck,” the executive said. “All because of where they work and their commitment to holding those in power accountable. License to do so is being given from the highest levels of office in the country. It is dangerous, and it is wrong.”
CNN has come in for frequent criticism from Trump as “fake news” and an “enemy of the people.” In October, a Florida man, Cesar Sayoc, sent inoperative mail bombs to prominent Democrats and to CNN’s office in New York, prompting evacuation of its building. Sayoc, whose attorneys described him as an obsessive Trump follower who is mentally ill, was sentenced last week to 20 years in prison.
Cuomo’s profanity-laced reaction to a man who called him “Fredo” at a public event received widespread attention on social media earlier this week, especially after President Trump retweeted video of it and even started selling T-shirts mocking Cuomo about the incident on his campaign website. Cuomo said the man’s reference to Fredo Corleone, the unimpressive middle brother in the crime family depicted in the “Godfather” films, was a slur against Italian Americans. A CNN spokesman said the network stood by Cuomo, saying he was “verbally attacked” in an “orchestrated setup.”
The incident involving Ryan, a pundit who appears frequently the network, occurred on Aug. 3 at a hotel in New Brunswick, N.J. As Ryan began speaking to a parents group, her security guard signaled for her to stop, and a confrontation between the guard and a man recording the speech with a video camera ensued. The man, local reporter Charles Kratovil, continued to record the exchange.
The guard, who was later identified by police as Joel Morris, told Kratovil to turn off his camera and leave the hotel ballroom, according to a police report of the incident. When Kratovil refused, Morris told police he grabbed Kratovil’s camera. Kratovil later complained that Morris had used a “compliance hold” on him, slightly injuring his wrist, the police report said. Kratovil eventually got his camera back.
Ryan, a veteran White House reporter for American Urban Radio Networks, travels with security as a result of threats. Her speaking contracts ban video and audio recordings, a provision designed to ensure that her voice and image aren’t used by rival networks. She declined to comment.
Kratovil is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, a site covering community news. He said in an interview Wednesday that he had the organizer’s approval to cover the event and had set up his camera in advance of Ryan’s speech without complaint. He said he intends to file a criminal complaint against Morris later this week.
Kratovil also noted the irony of a journalist preventing another journalist from covering an event. “It’s not something you expect,” he said. “It does seem odd for a journalist to act that way.”
On Tuesday, a lawsuit surfaced against Lemon, an opinionated host whose nightly program follows Cuomo’s, alleging that he had assaulted a former bartender at a New York bar last year.
The plaintiff, Dustin Hice, sued Lemon for a “demeaning, unprovoked and offensive assault” that allegedly took place at the bar in the beach resort town of Sag Harbor in July 2018. A CNN spokesperson said that Lemon “categorically denies” the claims.
“The plaintiff in this lawsuit has previously displayed a pattern of contempt for CNN on his social media accounts,” CNN said in a statement. “This claim follows his unsuccessful threats and demands for an exorbitant amount of money from Don Lemon.” A person close to Lemon said Hice had asked for $1.5 million from Lemon and filed suit after Lemon turned him down.
The suit states that Hice offered to buy the TV host a vodka drink called a lemon drop, but Lemon declined. Hice alleged that Lemon approached him later, and “put his hand down the front of his own shorts, and vigorously rubbed his genitalia, removed his hand and shoved his index and middle fingers into [Hice’s] mustache and under [Hice’s] nose.”
Cuomo tweeted on Tuesday that he appreciates the support he’s gotten since his angry reaction was circulated on social media. But he acknowledged he “should be better than the guys baiting me.”
“This happens all the time these days,” he wrote. “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.”