While CNN has long been plagued with liberal bias and is often accused of appearing to present news with an agenda, the network’s 2021 mishaps and gaffes go far beyond those of a typical mainstream news organization.
CNN has faced embarrassment on multiple occasions over the past few years, from offering disgraced attorney Michael Avenatti regular airtime to its Trump-era pivot away from founder Ted Turner’s just-the-facts approach to news, as the network constantly generates publicity for the wrong reasons. However, the network’s 2021 saw even redder faces as humiliation popped up at every turn.
Jeffrey Toobin welcomed back after masturbation scandal
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin returned to the airwaves in June for the first time since his embarrassing 2020 Zoom masturbation incident, thanking the liberal network for not firing him and saying he felt The New Yorker's termination of him was excessive.
Toobin, who was swiftly fired from The New Yorker last year for his conduct, listened as daytime anchor Alisyn Camerota had the painfully awkward "honors" of describing what happened and its consequences. Toobin was witnessed by colleagues exposing himself and masturbating on a staff Zoom call, leading to widespread ridicule of the veteran journalist.
His return resulted in one of the most bizarre moments in recent cable news history as Camerota asked what he was thinking.
"Well, obviously, I wasn't thinking very well or very much, and it was something that was inexplicable to me. I think one point – I wouldn't exactly say in my defense, because nothing is really in my defense. I didn't think I was on the call. I didn't think other people could see me," Toobin said. "I thought that I had turned off the Zoom call. Now, that's not a defense. This was deeply moronic and indefensible."
CNN has since used Toobin as a legal analyst as if nothing ever happened.
Chris Cuomo fired after years-long saga
CNN’s biggest star first began causing headaches for the liberal network in 2020 when he conducted a series of widely criticized, chummy interviews with his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The siblings would chide each other's looks and bicker over their affection for their mother, but the CNN anchor also gave the governor a platform to tout his leadership amid the pandemic.
Cuomo was previously barred from covering the New York governor, a rule that was apparently lifted by the network at the beginning of the pandemic and later re-implemented as the Democrat became engulfed in a tsunami of political scandals. There were critics who called out the conflict of interest at the time, but the playful banter between the Cuomo brothers was widely embraced by fans of the governor, many of them members of the media as news organizations praised the Democrat's response to the pandemic and obsessed over his daily press briefings.
When the calendar turned to 2021, things got worse for the Cuomo siblings when the governor was accused of sexual misconduct by an assortment of women and his baby brother put journalism ethics aside to offer a hand.
The New York attorney general's investigation that led to the governor stepping down also revealed that CNN’s most-popular host was using his media industry connections to help his brother fight off accusations, all while hiding the truth from both viewers and CNN management.
CNN fired Cuomo as a result and reportedly learned about a sexual misconduct allegation against the anchor himself that was unrelated to the governor’s situation during the probe. It was a separate accusation from that of veteran TV producer Shelley Ross, who penned a New York Times essay in September about an incident where he squeezed her buttock without permission in 2005. At the time, they were ABC News colleagues.
As the calendar turns to 2022, Cuomo – who finished 2021 as CNN’s most-watched host – is no longer employed by the network.
Ironically, CNN’s in-house media pundit Brian Stelter famously declared Cuomo has "boundaries" during an appearance on CBS’ "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" before the anchor was terminated.
One CNN insider told Fox News Digital there was universal relief within the network over his dismissal. The breakup has been acrimonious, with Cuomo reportedly planning to go to court to recoup the rest of the money from his contract.
CNN’s viewership had a brief, post-election spike, but Americans quickly turned off the liberal network once President Biden took office. CNN is now on pace to finish December down a staggering 81% among viewers from the advertiser-coveted demographic of adults age 25-54 compared to its January audience. CNN has also shed 73% of total viewers over the same time frame.
CNN has failed to surpass the one-million viewer average during the primetime hours of 8-11 p.m. ET for eight straight months and is on pace to finish December with its smallest audience of the year among both total and demo viewers.
CNN’s most-popular program in 2021 was the now-canceled "Cuomo Prime Time," which finished the network’s dismal year as No. 25 among all cable news options. The liberal network’s scandal-plagued 9 p.m. ET host, who was fired earlier this month, finished behind 13 Fox News shows and 11 MSNBC programs despite being CNN’s most-watched offering.
CNN, which relied on bashing former President Trump for much of its content in recent years, averaged over two million viewers during the first three weeks of 2021 but only 690,000 since Biden took office on Jan. 20.
In October, Americans largely ignored a CNN town hall event with Biden when the Anderson Cooper-moderated event finished with a smaller audience than regular programming on both Fox News and MSNBC.
Longtime producer fired after being charged with child sex crimes
Griffin, a senior producer for CNN's long-struggling morning program "New Day," was affectionately referred to as "Griff" by colleagues until he was charged by a grand jury in Vermont "with three counts of using a facility of interstate commerce to attempt to entice minors to engage in unlawful sexual activity."
The now-former CNN senior producer allegedly attempted to pay off witnesses, offered a woman $30,000 for a "mother daughter weekend with me," and told authorities that he was "ashamed" when he was taken into custody after allegedly abusing a 9-year-old girl and enticing other minors.
Uncertainty over future
WarnerMedia, the parent company of CNN, and Discovery are set to merge in 2022 and the biggest question surrounding the multibillion-dollar pact is what the future holds for embattled CNN boss Jeff Zucker.
The past 12 months have been quite the journey for Zucker, as insiders feel the CNN honcho was unhappy reporting to WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who is six years younger than him and more of an expert on streaming than journalism.
In February, Zucker reportedly told CNN staffers he would continue to oversee the liberal network for the remainder of the year but expected to "move on" when his contract expires at the end of 2021.
Many insiders quickly dismissed the news that Zucker would actually walk away from CNN, where his hands-on influence has seen the network radically transform from a straight-news approach to its more liberal, opinion-heavy self today.
Months later, WarnerMedia’s looming merger with Discovery was announced and Zucker’s longtime pal, Discovery CEO David Zaslav, was chosen to run the combined venture while Kilar would be shown the door.
Zucker and Zaslav run in the same prestigious social circle and reportedly have "sprawling estates" in the posh Hamptons area of New York that are only 10 minutes apart from each other. The New York Times even referred to Zucker and Zaslav’s relationship as a "bromance," and it appeared the CNN boss could remain in power despite the network’s well-documented struggles.
By September, former CNN reporter Dylan Byers quoted three network sources who said Zucker would stay on the job at least through the completion of the merger with Discovery.
However, 2021 turned out to be disastrous for Zucker's network. Liberty Media chairman John Malone, who sits on the Discovery Communications Inc. board of directors and is considered extremely powerful in the industry, recently said he wants CNN to return to its pre-Zucker days of nonpartisan journalism.
It is now unclear who will be in charge of CNN once the merger is complete.
Another failed ‘New Day’ relaunch
CNN shook up its morning show "New Day" once again in 2021, but Zucker’s pet project has failed to resonate with viewers after multiple lineup changes.
Zucker took over CNN in January 2013, and it didn’t take long for the former "Today" honcho to put his own stamp on the cable network’s morning lineup. Zucker created "New Day" with hand-picked anchors Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan, and Michaela Pereira, and it debuted with much fanfare by June of that year.
The show was supposed to emerge as CNN’s flagship morning program, akin to NBC’s highly successful "Today" but with edginess that could only happen on cable. "New Day" arrived with much fanfare, as trade publications fawned over the elaborate set design, and CNN even enlisted pop star Alicia Keys to perform a promo jingle ahead of its premiere.
However, Zucker’s attempt to bring a popular morning show to CNN has been a complete flop, and it has never averaged 700,000 viewers for a year. Eight years and multiple lineup changes later, CNN attempted to right the ship once again in April by adding outspoken liberal host Brianna Keilar, who now shares the anchor desk with John Berman.
Even with Keilar’s addition, the show has struggled to find an audience and finished 2021 as the No. 46 most-watched show on cable news with only 529,000 average viewers, behind dozens of programs with historically less desirable timeslots.
Lack of prominent women
Former CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin asked her previous employer to consider a new female primetime host in an Instagram video in December while addressing the termination of Cuomo.
"Just like so many of you I saw the news on Saturday about a sudden change in CNN primetime, and I have no comment on that decision," Baldwin said. "But just as someone, as a woman who worked there for over a decade who has the utmost respect for my former colleagues, I just wanted to share something with you today, and that is when I saw the news pop onto my phone, I did something I hadn’t done since I left that place. I went back, and I rewatched my parting words on my last newscast back in April."
Upon her departure from CNN in April, Baldwin aired her grievances about the lack of opportunities for women at the network.
"The most influential anchors on our network, the highest-paid, are men. My bosses, my executives, are men. The person who oversees CNN dayside is a man, and my executive producer for 10 years is a man. So I’ve been surrounded by a lot of men," Baldwin said.
She reiterated these comments in her Instagram video.
"What’s happening now creates this opportunity, which is exactly what I was talking about. And so, I’ll say it. I would like to see CNN put a woman in that 9 p.m. spot. Not me, I’ve moved on, but there are plenty of brilliant woman they could choose from," Baldwin said.
"The way we change the game for us is to put more women, brown, Black, White women in positions of power," she added. "And yes, of course, we need more seats at the table, but we also need to build a better, more inclusive table. And CNN primetime has been dominated by male hosts, and y’all, it’s nearly 2022. Wouldn’t you like to see a woman successfully lead in primetime?"
Guerrilla news outlet Project Veritas revealed a series of secretly recorded videos in April that embarrassed the network when technical director Charles Chester claimed to an undercover journalist that there's "no such thing as unbiased news" since there are too many agendas, while declaring his network meddled in the 2020 election.
"I think we bury the lead a lot," Chester said. "Listen to the way they ask questions. Because they're not actually asking questions … What they're actually doing is they're telling the person what to say. It's an art form in there. There's an art form to it."
Chester then added: "And the only people that we let on the air, for the most part, are people that have a proven track record of taking the bait."
Project Veritas also released footage of Chester admitting that CNN's "focus" was to get President Trump out of office during the 2020 presidential campaign, as well as that the network manufactured stories about the Republican's health in order to aid then-candidate Joe Biden.
"Look at what we did, we got Trump out," Chester said in a celebratory tone. "I am 100% going to say it. And I 100% believe it that if it wasn't for CNN, I don't know that Trump would have got voted out."
Chester also shed light on how the network has milked the pandemic for ratings.
"COVID? Gangbusters with ratings, right? Which is why we constantly have the death toll on the side, which I have a major problem with, how we’re tallying how many people die every day," he said on secretly recorded video, noting that he finds himself strangely rooting for the death toll to rise to help CNN’s narrative.
Fox News’ David Rutz, Lindsay Kornick, Rebecca Rosenberg, Joseph A. Wulfsohn contributed to this report.