Following a very brief suspension, CNN personality Chris Cuomo was fired on Saturday after what the network described as new information emerged about his efforts to help his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, fight the sexual harassment allegations that ended his tenure as governor.
Yet as NPR reported on Sunday, Chris Cuomo’s problems may not end there, with a potential sexual harassment allegation heading his way soon.
Then on Monday, the New York Post was among the first to report that Cuomo was preparing to sue CNN for the remaining $18 million he believes is owed to him under his current contract.
Cuomo could absolutely pursue a lawsuit against CNN as a starting point for a negotiation. How well this will all go for either side remains to be seen, but what is certain is that between Cuomo’s brief suspension and termination, CNN lawyers dug fast and deep into his contract to build a potential defense for the firing. One of the things they may have found in the contract is a morals clause.
A morals clause is an instrument in a contract for the protection of the employer. This type of provision can render a contract void if the employee is found to have committed certain behaviors. The problem for CNN is twofold, though.
First, these clauses generally prohibit behavior in a person’s private life. Examples would be illegal drug use and sending lewd pictures.
The second is the nature of Cuomo’s relationship with his brother. Could something like nepotism be part of a morals clause? Sure, but here’s where CNN would get into very sticky territory.
Back in the very early days of the coronavirus, CNN was closely covering the elder Cuomo’s daily updates as governor. New York was one of the states hardest hit back in March and April of 2020, so covering his news conferences made good sense. The nation could learn from the issues New York was facing and see how Cuomo was dealing with them.
With Andrew Cuomo’s star shining brighter than ever, some at CNN consciously decided it would be a good idea to have Chris Cuomo interview his brother. The two had a fantastic natural rapport on camera, and while the interviews were factual and serious in the beginning, over a period of months they became more frequent, lighter and more playful. The audience loved it, ratings went up and CNN was very, very happy.
For CNN to now claim that Chris Cuomo violated a morals clause by helping his brother would be a remarkably interesting and challenging issue for a court and one that many of us are looking forward to seeing play out. It could be an immense stretch for CNN if certain stories about CEO Jeff Zucker and Cuomo are true.
Clearly, Cuomo wasn’t an unwilling participant in the “which brother loves the other more?” show. It was perceived as being good for everyone involved and made for great TV.
Yet some, such as another very popular CNN personality, Jake Tapper, told The New York Times back in May that it was incredible that Cuomo the younger was secretly strategizing with Cuomo the elder to extract him from the messes of his own creation that would result in him losing his governorship.
Tapper said, “I cannot imagine a world in which anybody in journalism thinks that that was appropriate.”
But CNN did. And while it remains to be seen how much it knew and exactly when, it won’t pass a court’s laugh test for the network to claim it was unaware of how close the brothers were, how frequently they were in contact, and that they discussed issues relevant to both being a CNN host and being governor of the state in which CNN hosts its main broadcasts.
Michael Epstein, a New Jersey lawyer, reminded us that “if an employer is aware of ongoing employee behavior that violates a morals clause in their employment agreement and not only allows that behavior to continue but actively encourages it, it’s going to be very hard for the employer to later claim that this violation was a valid reason for termination.”
If this issue ever gets to court, CNN will need to construct a foundation for the argument that a clear line existed between the behaviors it knew about and encouraged (in short, the aforementioned “brothers broadcasts”) and those that were violative of Chris Cuomo’s contract (Chris Cuomo taking part in multiple advisory sessions with Andrew Cuomo’s team in an attempt to deal with the allegations of inappropriate behavior).
This will never see the light of day in a courtroom. The best lawyers in the nation, to whom CNN of course has access, would struggle to explain where that line in the sand was drawn.
Sure, it’s easy to look back today and expound upon which of the CNN host’s actions may have constituted a contractual breach, but in a ratings bonanza in which news networks competed hourly for corona-housebound eyes, there’s no way that CNN would be able to successfully make its case. It needs to quickly negotiate a payout of the $18 million remaining on Cuomo’s contract and prepare for the rest of the fallout.
It’s easy to say that this is a cautionary tale for TV networks moving forward, but it probably isn’t. Deep in the moment, they do what they need to do to capture the zeitgeist.
If, as the Cuomo brothers did for CNN, you’re also able to craft that zeitgeist, that’s exactly what you’ll do.
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