That would be the same chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who may have had journalism’s worst pandemic. Last fall, he masturbated during a Zoom call with colleagues from the New Yorker, as well as employees of the public radio station WNYC, as Vice News first reported. Never did Toobin deny the story. “I made an embarrassingly stupid mistake, believing I was off-camera. I apologize to my wife, family, friends and co-workers,” he told Vice last October. “I believed I was not visible on Zoom. I thought no one on the Zoom call could see me. I thought I had muted the Zoom video.”
The New Yorker, where Toobin had worked for 27 years, later fired him over the incident.
CNN, where Toobin has worked as a commentator since 2002, reached a different personnel decision, as the whole world learned on Thursday afternoon. After a nearly eight-month absence from CNN airwaves — the network said at the time of the incident that he’d “asked for some time off while he deals with a personal issue” — Toobin appeared on-air with host Alisyn Camerota to discuss gun rights and the Supreme Court.
But not before Camerota pressed him on the scandal. “I thought that I had turned off the Zoom call,” said Toobin. “Now, that’s not a defense. This was deeply moronic and indefensible. But, I mean, that is part of — that is part of the story. And I have spent the seven subsequent months, miserable months in my life, I can certainly confess, trying to be a better person, I mean, in therapy, trying to do some public service, working in a food bank, which I certainly am going to continue to do, working on a new book about the Oklahoma City bombing. But I am trying to become the kind of person that people can trust again.”
The cable-news beat, which had settled into a post-Trump reticence, roared at the sight of Toobin back on a CNN set. Twitter overflowed with puerile jokes and outrage. As for CNN itself? Journalists at the network described to the Erik Wemple Blog being blindsided by the news, learning about it just as the rest of the country did. A network spokesman told CNN only that the longtime legal journalist would appear “regularly” on the air. As the New York Times put it, the network “declined to comment beyond [Toobin’s] on-air remarks.”
Of course, CNN declined to elaborate on its coddling of a fellow who masturbated on a Zoom call with fellow journalists. What wisdom could it possibly have shoehorned into a statement? CNN believes in a safe, inclusive and welcoming workplace, though those principles are negotiable if you can break down complex legal topics in fewer than 90 seconds. In the hope that the network would feel more forthcoming, we passed along some questions about the situation:
- Toobin was off the air for about eight months: Was that period considered at CNN a suspension, a leave of absence, or what? Did CNN make any demands or requests about how Toobin spend the time?
- Has CNN discussed whether Toobin’s conduct will disqualify him from commenting on certain issues, such as sexual misconduct or “moronic” behavior?
- If Toobin’s conduct doesn’t qualify as a firing offense, what does?
- Did CNN do anything to notify the rank-and-file that it had reached this decision?
We have yet to receive any answers to those questions. CNN hasn’t to date issued a statement explaining its thinking with respect to Toobin, who referred an interview request to the network’s PR department.
During her chat with Toobin, Camerota said, “Jeffrey, many of us have really missed having your legal analysis to guide us on our programs.” We have no reason to doubt Camerota’s sincerity here. Whether it was Trump’s norm-breaking approach to the Justice Department, major criminal cases or high-stakes battles at the Supreme Court, Toobin has been a TV legal analyst without peer — a guy who eschews legal jargon in favor of plain-language blasts of wisdom. CNN’s coverage of the absurd legal challenges to the 2020 presidential election as well as the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin would have benefited from Toobin’s input.
And yet, so what? Organizations must occasionally find a way forward without a star contributor. That’s what the New Yorker did, in a decision that was punctuated with this line from Stan Duncan, chief people officer for the media company Condé Nast: “I want to assure everyone that we take workplace matters seriously. We are committed to fostering an environment where everyone feels respected and upholds our standards of conduct.” The New Yorker conducted an investigation of Toobin’s history at the magazine, and Toobin told Camerota that it found no complaints outside of his Zoom indiscretion. During his interview on CNN Thursday, Toobin called the New Yorker punishment “excessive.” Maybe he would have accepted a warning or a suspension.
Alas, progressive discipline wasn’t invented for on-the-job masturbators.
Hours after the Toobin relaunch, CNN media guru Brian Stelter wrote in his “Reliable Sources” newsletter that “by nightfall, I pretty much sensed that the social media conversation had moved on to other subjects.”
The Erik Wemple Blog pretty much senses that the social media conversation will return to Toobin and CNN, again and again — especially when the news cycle churns out scandalitos topically adjacent to Toobin’s misdeeds. Let the mockery rain down: Why go easy on a network that won’t even defend its own actions?