CNN's Biggest Scandals Ever

In 1979, media mogul Ted Turner and Reese Schonfeld had a dream: a 24/7 news channel. People thought they were crazy, but on June 1, 1980, CNN was launched, and cable news was never the same. Once the only all-news television channel in the United States, CNN quickly found itself in competition with the likes of MSNBC and Fox News. Jeff Zucker was hired as president of CNN Worldwide in 2013 to boost sagging ratings, and he seemingly set his sights on a ratings juggernaut: future President Donald Trump.

"Had Trump lost the election, CNN would probably have returned to its previously scheduled struggle for survival. Instead, it has become more central to the national conversation than at any point in the network's history since the first gulf war," The New York Times Magazine wrote. Zucker admittedly brought ESPN-type programming to the network, but for politics. "The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way," Zucker told the outlet in 2017.

What can we say? Sensationalism sells. But it can also backfire. And in the case of CNN, it didn't start with Zucker. Here are just a few of CNN's biggest scandals ever.

Did Michael Smerconish compare Bernie Sanders' 2020 campaign to the coronavirus?

During the heated 2020 Democratic primaries, CNN host Michael Smerconish seemingly compared candidate Bernie Sanders to the novel coronavirus. Yes, you read that right. Under the chyron that read, "Can either coronavirus or Bernie Sanders be stopped?" Smerconish started his opening statement (via Media Matters): "An already unpredictable presidential campaign just became moreso. A list of intangibles which included the impact of impeachment, a large Democratic field, congested candidate lanes, and the looming prospect of no one getting a majority of delegates needed to secure the nomination before the convention now includes the spread of a deadly virus." Yikes.

The choice of words got immediate pushback from the Sanders campaign and his supporters. Best-selling author Naomi Klein, for example, tweeted: "Nice to wake up to discover that CNN is giving a platform to the idea that the left is a disease. That's never led to anything bad happening before." 

CNN then posted a video of the segment with the chyron removed. "The banner was wholly inappropriate and a mistake. We are addressing internally," a spokesperson for the network said, per Deadline.

Donna Brazile resigned after allegedly leaking CNN Town Hall questions to the Clinton campaign

As part of the Wikileaks dump of the Clinton campaign emails, Politico found that then-interim Democratic National Committee Chair and CNN analyst, Donna Brazile, reportedly gave the Clinton campaign advance warning of at least one question that was to be asked at CNN Town Hall. With a subject like that read, "From time to time I get the questions in advance," Brazile then proceeded to let the campaign know a question about the death penalty was going to be asked, adding, "Here's one that worries me about HRC." The question was later asked word-for-word during the town hall.

A CNN spokesperson told the outlet that the network "did not share any questions with Donna Brazile, or anyone else for that matter, prior to the town hall," and Brazile denied receiving the questions in advance. "As a longtime political activist with deep ties to our party, I supported all of our candidates for president. I often shared my thoughts with each and every campaign, and any suggestions that indicate otherwise are simply untrue," she said. "As it pertains to the CNN Debates, I never had access to questions and would never have shared them with the candidates if I did."

However, barely two weeks later, CNN cut ties with Brazile, claiming that the network was "completely uncomfortable with what we have learned about her interactions with the Clinton campaign while she was a CNN contributor" (via CNN).

Brooke Baldwin's comments about the 2015 Baltimore protests sparked outrage

During a 2015 interview with Rep. Elijah Cummings discussing police training in the wake of the Baltimore protests following the death of Freddie Gray, CNN host Brooke Baldwin tied the hyper-militarization of police to the escalating violence. "I was talking to the city councilman last week," she said (via Mediaite). "He said, Brooke, these people have to live in the community. There's a lack of emotional investment. And a lot of young people — and I've been talking about there so much. A lot of young people — and I love our nation's veterans, but some are coming back from war, they don't know the communities, and they're ready to do battle."

Right-wing media outlets quickly pounced on her comments, leading Baldwin to issue an on-air apology. "I absolutely misspoke," she said (via Yahoo! News). "I inartfully chose my words a hundred percent, and I just wish, just speaking to all of you this morning ... I wholeheartedly retract what I said. I've thought tremendously about this, and to our nation's veterans — to you, I have the utmost respect for our men and women in uniform, and I wanted you to know that this morning." She added, "So to all of you, I owe you a tremendous apology. I am truly sorry."

Chris Cuomo's stance on Wikileaks caused a heated debate

We all remember the heated and contentious 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. One of the most divisive issues to arise was the Wikileaks dump of the Clinton campaign emails, and CNN host Chris Cuomo took a stance on the hacked materials that put the First Amendment front and center. "Remember, it's illegal to possess these stolen documents," Cuomo said during a broadcast (via The Wall Street Journal). "It's different for the media, so everything you learn about this, you're learning from us."

Several law professors were quick to point out that Cuomo was apparently just dead wrong. "It's highly unlikely — I would say unimaginable — that the simple downloading of documents made public by WikiLeaks is criminal," Floyd Abrams, who works at the law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel, told the publication. "I don't know of any case that so holds or statute that requires such a result."

"The legal assertion is dubious, but the political implications are even more concerning," George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley wrote on his blog. "The weight of the existing case law militates heavily against the legal threat described on CNN." Cuomo did not respond to the controversy.

Carol Costello joked about Bristol Palin being assaulted

In 2014, CNN played Bristol Palin's police interview recordings after she and members of her family were involved in massive brawl at a party in Anchorage, Alaska. While attempting to find the woman who assaulted her sister, Bristol described being accosted by another man. "A guy comes out of nowhere and pushes me on the ground, takes me by my feet in my dress — in my thong dress in front of everybody — [and says] 'Come on you c**t, get the f**k out of here. Come on you s**t, get the f**k out of here," she said during the interview.

While introducing the clip, CNN host Carol Costello, um, joked, "This is quite possibly the best minute and half of audio we've ever come across ... So sit back an enjoy." After playing the audio clip, Costello quipped, "The long bleep was my favorite part" (via Politico). Bristol had some harsh words for the network and the media in general on her blog, stating that they salivated "like dogs given a new bone." She further claimed that if it had been Chelsea Clinton who had tried to defend herself from a man, then "the liberal media would've held her up as some feminist hero."

Costello was then forced to offer an apology. "Over the past few days I have been roundly criticized for joking about a brawl involving the Palin family. In retrospect, I deserve such criticism and would like to apologize," Costello told Politico.

Jon Stewart's 'Crossfire' appearance apparently got the show canceled

Remember when CNN used to employ controversial Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson? What a time. A co-host of "Crossfire" along with Democratic strategist Paul Begala, Carlson found himself — and his show — on the ropes after Jon Stewart was invited on as a guest in 2004. Stewart was host of "The Daily Show" at the time and spent a lot of time in the media bashing the CNN series and went on to tell them just that while on air. 

Stewart came out swinging almost immediately. "And I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad," Stewart said in the now infamous appearance. "... And I wanted to — I felt that wasn't fair and I should come here and tell you that I don't — it's not so much that it's bad, as it's hurting America." He also added both hosts were "partisan hacks."

The show was cancelled less than three months later. In a 2015 opinion piece on CNN, Begala credited Stewart's appearance as the sole reason for the show's cancellation. "I have not spoken to Jon Stewart since that day. I ran into him in a hotel lobby once, and he darted away like he'd seen a ghost," he wrote. "When I had a book I wanted to plug on his show, he wouldn't take my call."

Reza Aslan and that infamous anti-Trump tweet

In 2017, religious studies scholar Reza Aslan scored a show called "Believer" on CNN that was meant "to show religious traditions, practices, rites and rituals that may at first seem weird and foreign and exotic and unfamiliar," per the Chicago Tribune. However, the show caused controversy with the very first episode after Aslan ate human brains, much to the outrage of Indian and Hindu groups (via The Guardian). The depiction of the "cannibalistic" and "obscure" Aghori sect of Hinduism caught the ire of former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who tweeted: "I am very disturbed that CNN is using its power and influence to increase people's misunderstanding and fear of Hinduism."

One might think that Aslan's show was canceled over outrage from various religious groups, but it wasn't. The show was canceled because of a tweet the scholar fired off about then-President Donald Trump. Per Deadline, Aslan called Trump "piece of s**t," a "stain on the presidency," and an "embarrassment humankind."

After the tweet, "Believer" was not renewed for a second season. "CNN has decided to not move forward with production on the acquired series Believer with Reza Aslan," the network said in a statement. "CNN needs to protect its brand as an unbiased news outlet." Aslan responded that he was "disappointed" with the network's decision and admitted that he "lost [his] cool and responded to him in a derogatory fashion."

CNN's handling of the Steubenville rape trial was widely criticized

In 2012, the Steubenville High School rape case shocked the nation. According to The New York Times, two members of the football team raped an unconscious 16-year-old girl and shared pictures of the assault on social media. The following year, the trial for the horrific crime was national news. Many in the media and the Twittersphere felt that CNN's coverage of the trial was also horrific.

Poppy Harlow, then a correspondent for the network, showed sympathy for the now-convicted rapists while speaking to CNN anchor Candy Crowley outside the courthouse. "It was incredibly emotional — incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart," she said (via The Washington Post). Yikes.

During the broadcast, CNN legal analyst Paul Callan seemed to lament the fact that the teenage boys would have to suffer any consequences at all. "That will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Employers, when looking up their background, will see they're registered sex offender," he said. "When they move into a new neighborhood and somebody goes on the Internet where these things are posted. Neighbors will know they're a registered sex offender." To make matters much worse, CNN also revealed the victim's name by airing an unedited clip of one of the defendants apologizing (via HuffPost).

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

CNN's 2020 election coverage angered Native Americans

During its 2020 election coverage, CNN featured an on-air polling graphic that used the phrase "something else" to refer to Native America voters. It obviously did not go over well. 

"This type of language continues the efforts to erase Indigenous and other voters who don't neatly fall into the race categories listed in the graphic," the Native American Journalists Association said in a statement (via the Los Angeles Times). "Being Native American is a political classification — not merely a racial background. To refer to Indigenous voters as 'something else' fails to recognize the sovereignty and political classification of Native voters."

Television writer and Lakota, Lucas Brown Eyes, explained how crucial the Native American vote was for the highly-contested and close election. "Right now. That 270 Vote route to win. Hinges on a historically red state, Arizona, flipping. The margin is 93K. There are 330,000 potential Native voters in AZ," he tweeted. "Yet the media still refuses to even say our names. Say it with me...NATIVES ARE IMPORTANT."

At the time of this writing, CNN has yet to address the controversy or offer an apology.

Chris Cuomo once again stepped in it

As is their custom, Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon share friendly banter as "Cuomo Prime Time" transitions into "CNN Tonight with Don Lemon." But in early March 2020, Cuomo caused a stir when he started singing the theme song to the 70's sitcom, "Good Times." When Lemon asked how he knew the words, Cuomo replied, "You know I'm Black on the inside" (via People). He probably should have kept that as a thought.

Almost immediately, Cuomo faced backlash on Twitter. "It's f**king offensive," journalist Aisha K. Staggers wrote. "Black isn't something you can just say you feel you are inside without having to deal with the racism that comes with being physically Black on the outside. This is cultural appropriation."

Cuomo took to the social media platform to explain his comments, tweeting: "Said with all respect to reality and our need to fight this amplification of color animus. there is no understanding what it is to live as a black person in america if you are white but it is so important to listen. The majority must change racism."

CNN's coverage of two 2013 national tragedies drew widespread criticism

When you're in the 24/7 breaking news business, the rush to be first to report on events can sometimes lead to disastrous results. While covering the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, CNN's Tom Fuentes claimed that "highly-placed sources" told him that a "dark skinned male" had been arrested for the horrific crime. Turns out that was false (via Mediate). The FBI and the Boston Police Department refuted those claims, and CNN quickly changed its chyrons to read, "Conflicting Reports On Bombing Arrest."

That's quite the on-air fail. Even then-President Barack Obama had harsh words for CNN and other networks who got it wrong. "In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there's a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions," he said (via The New York Times). 

That same year, CNN's coverage of the Washington Navy Yard shooting was deemed as just flat-out bizarre. Although the network used caution in identifying a suspect, anchors called pretty much anything "interesting developments," and Wolf Blitzer decided that wearing all black was a motive (via Insider). "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart promptly blasted the network for its "breathless wrongness" — but to CNN chief Jeff Zucker, the ratings justified the means. "What a week," Zucker said in an internal memo obtained by Politico. "... In front of the cameras and behind the scenes, you have shown the world what makes us CNN." 

Did CNN's Chris Cuomo cover for his brother, Andrew Cuomo?

Once heralded as the Democratic fighter who took on Donald Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made several appearances on CNN, specifically on "Cuomo Prime Time," the nightly show hosted by his brother, Chris Cuomo. The chummy interviews were subsequently blasted as a potential conflict of interest. However, once Andrew faced numerous allegations, ranging from sexual assault to willingly covering up COVID-19 deaths, his little brother didn't have much to say.

"Obviously, I'm aware of what's going on with my brother," the CNN host said on his show. "And obviously, I cannot cover it, because he is my brother. Now, of course, CNN has to cover it. They have covered it, extensively, and they will continue to do so." But that didn't mean Chris wasn't helping Andrew strategize behind the scenes. In May 2021, a bombshell report by The Washington Post revealed that Chris helped his beleaguered brother strategize his response to his numerous sexual harassment allegations.

CNN employees reportedly felt "unease" with Chris advising Andrew, with one person saying it was "really upsetting." An on-air reporter, who spoke anonymously, said there was a "general sense of frustration" with Chris: "I don't think anyone was surprised they spoke about this, given they are family, but calls with lawyers and staff ... wow." Chris Cuomo apologized on his show, and CNN released a statement. Saying that "it was inappropriate [for Chris] to engage in [those] conversations," the network noted that "he will not participate in such conversations going forward."

CNN's 2020 Democratic debate in Iowa was accused of being anti-Sanders

Prior to 2020 Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa, CNN published a story from anonymous sources claiming that Bernie Sanders once told Elizabeth Warren in 2018 that a woman couldn't be president. Naturally, this incident came up in the debate, but the moderator, CNN's Abby Phillip, framed the question in a way that some believed was borderline journalistic malpractice.

"CNN reported yesterday — and ... Senator Warren confirmed in a statement — that, in 2018, you told her you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?" Phillip asked. Sanders categorically denied the accusation, and Phillip then turned to Warren and asked, "Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?" This was met with nervous laughter from the audience.

Rolling Stone called the spectacle "villainous and shameful," and harshly criticized the network. "That 'when' was as transparent a media 'f**k you' as we've seen in a presidential debate," Matt Taibbi wrote. The Intercept was less pointed, but blasted the network for alleged bias: "The moderator's use of Warren to confirm a version of the story that originally came from Warren's account of the meeting at the time signaled which side CNN was taking in the 'he said, she said,' but it was confirmed by the framing of the question — 'Why did you say that?' — rather than asking whether he said it."

CNN allegedly misled viewers about the assault weapons ban

During a segment in 2003, CNN's Miami bureau chief John Zarrella ran a segment on the network to discuss the possible renewal of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that was set to expire the following year. The law outright banned the manufacture and sale of nineteen "military-style assault weapons, assault weapons with specific combat features" and high-capacity magazines. In an effort to show the difference in the firepower of legal vs. banned weapons, CNN invited Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne and a deputy to a shooting range for a demonstration. It... didn't go well.

According to The Washington Post, the banned weapon destroyed a cinder block and the legal one did minimal damage. Zarrella then told the anchor it was "a pretty powerful demonstration of the firepower" that the police "want to see kept off the streets." However, the bullets from the legal weapon never hit the target, they were fired into the ground. CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said in a statement that the camera operator didn't realize this and admitted the "demonstration was less than clear."

Almost immediately, the National Rifle Association (NRA) pounced on the on-air debacle. "Either it was a deliberate attempt to fake the story, or the reporter had a complete ignorance of the story he's covering," the NRA's Wayne LaPierre claimed (via The Washington Times).

Does CNN have a sexism problem?

After 13 years with the network, Brooke Baldwin shocked viewers in February 2021 when she announced she would be leaving CNN two month later. "There is just more I need to do ... outside of this place," she said in an emotional address to her audience, adding, "No, I don't have a job I'm jumping right into." So, why would she leave?

Well, during an appearance on the "Ms. Magazine" podcast that April, with less than week left at CNN, Baldwin might have dropped some clues about her departure. "The most influential anchors on our network, the highest-paid, are men. My bosses, my executives, are men ... My executive producer for 10 years is a man. So I've been surrounded by a lot of men," she explained. "... I was surrounded by a lot of dudes." Baldwin also claimed that her desire share women-centered stories was an uphill battle. "I know I, personally, fight for women's stories," she said, before delving into her CNN series, "American Women," which she brought to the network. "I got told no a lot and I still managed to do it." 

Fellow CNN host Don Lemon pushed back on those claims on the "Sway" podcast (via The New York Times). "We have plenty of women in positions of power in the network," he said, but also noted that he didn't "know enough about the organizational chart" to talk about the executive level.