The media industry and CNN viewers were stunned Thursday when legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin returned for the first time since his Zoom masturbation incident in October, prompting questions about standards and accountability at the liberal network.
Toobin, who was swiftly fired from The New Yorker last year after he exposed himself on the video conferencing service, will receive a second chance from CNN, where he's been an analyst for nearly 20 years. Toobin’s awkward return came weeks after the network decided not to punish anchor Chris Cuomo after it was reported he offered political advice to his brother, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, amid his sexual misconduct scandal.
"Liberals can say and do anything at CNN without getting fired," Independent Women’s Voice senior policy analyst Kelsey Bolar told Fox News.
"As a believer in forgiveness and redemption, I don’t support ‘cancelling’ Jeffrey Toobin for good. However, after performing this lewd act and becoming notorious for it, there are undoubtedly hundreds, if not thousands of better-qualified candidates, for the role of a public-facing CNN legal analyst," Bolar said. "It says a lot about the network’s values that it would choose to rehire a man who masturbated on a Zoom call in front of his colleagues -- would the same happen if it were a woman? Or, if his name were Rick Santorum? Of course not."
Santorum lost his job last month as the network’s token Republican for telling a conservative crowd that immigrants had created a nation "from nothing" based on Judeo-Christian values. The Republican political commentator was shown the door over comments that offended some liberals, while Toobin and Cuomo have kept their jobs despite embarrassing CNN with their conduct.
Industry observers felt Cuomo was safe all along since he’s the most-watched host on the ratings-challenged network, and CNN had already stood by him amid a laundry list of scandals over the past year. But the return of Toobin caught people off guard.
"There are plenty of other opportunities Toobin could pursue where CNN employees and viewers wouldn’t be subjected to memories of his gross and dishonorable actions. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised," Bolar said. "We all knew that Jeffery Toobin was too obsessed with stroking his own ego to ever leave TV for good. And apparently, CNN’s standards are so high, even a Zoom masturbator can make it back."
Cornell Law School professor and media critic William A. Jacobson felt the situations were different and the retainment of Cuomo was more shocking.
"Toobin's conduct was not at CNN, much less on air at CNN. By contrast, Chris Cuomo has embarrassed CNN on air repeatedly by failing to keep a professional distance from his brother the Governor, while also serving as an undisclosed adviser. That CNN tolerates Chris Cuomo's journalistic misbehavior is the outrage here, not that CNN cut a break to a guy who had a personal problem at another employer," Jacobson told Fox News.
Indeed, Toobin was caught masturbating during a Zoom call with his colleagues from The New Yorker, not his peers from CNN. But Santorum was canned over comments he made to Young America's Foundation, not on CNN.
University of North Carolina ethics guru Lois Boynton said there have been several personnel incidents at CNN that call into question how the network determines discipline for wayward employees.
"Inconsistencies in how organizations appear to reprimand public-facing employees can raise eyebrows and lower trust," Boynton told Fox News, noting that CNN doesn’t need to explain why it kept Toobin around but the decision comes with consequences.
"While a high-profile organization does not need to share details of its personnel procedures, it should be aware of public perceptions and how those perceptions affect public trust and loyalty," she said.
CNN’s own media reporters noted the network’s anchors and hosts wanted Toobin to return, while others have reported that friends of the troubled legal analyst lobbied CNN president Jeff Zucker to grant him a second chance. Some joked that Toobin must "have something" on Zucker, but Grabien Media founder Tom Elliott correctly predicted the outcome months ago.
"Any normal corporation would have fired Toobin approximately 12 seconds after this incident occurred. I don’t expect CNN ever will," Elliott told Fox News when the incident first occurred.
Elliott explained his thought process when reached for a follow-up comment on Thursday.
"CNN viewers are already well aware the network only pretends to have standards when their conservative contributors are under fire. Jeffrey Lord mockingly invoked a Nazi slogan during a Twitter exchange and was promptly dispatched. Santorum made a comment CNN didn't seem to understand, and he was likewise let go," Elliott told Fox News. "These are absolutely nothing compared to what Cuomo and Toobin were caught doing."
The Grabien Media founder said it all boils down to politics.
"Of course we know why these personalities are treated differently. CNN views journalism as an ancillary concern; its main focus is serving as the Democratic Party's PR wing," Elliott said.
NewsBusters managing editor Curtis Houck agreed the partisan network wouldn’t dare tarnish the reputation of a prominent liberal.
"CNN only further revealed itself to have an aversion to ethics, decency, and journalistic principles by having Jeffrey Toobin back. Add in the Chris Cuomo scandal and even minor incidents of yesteryear such as Anderson Cooper's Twitter account and you have a Jeffrey Zucker-led operation that will circle the wagons to protect their own at any cost," Houck told Fox News.
DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall told Fox News that "CNN's standards for accountability have been difficult to assess" and decisions made by the network regarding Cuomo and Toobin have been confusing as the organization has seen a sharp drop in ratings.
"It would seem CNN should focus most on accountability for the ratings of its shows. Even by post-election year ratings standards, the channel is struggling to find viewers," McCall told Fox News. "CNN should do some soul-searching to determine why viewers have departed and hold both on-air and off-air decision-makers accountable for the poor ratings."
Fox News’ Joseph A. Wulfsohn contributed to this report.