August 14, 2019

This is the Poynter Institute’s daily newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, click here.

Good Wednesday morning. More layoffs hit GateHouse papers on Tuesday. But before that, did you see the video of CNN’s Chris Cuomo nearly getting into a fight with some random guy at a bar?

I know it was you, Cuomo

“I’ll (bleeping) ruin your (bleep)!”

This time, Sonny, it actually wasn’t about business. It was strictly personal.

CNN host Chris Cuomo had a nasty exchange with a heckler at a New York bar Sunday over a reference to “The Godfather.” This isn’t a joke. I’ll link to the video here, but be warned, it features some very R-rated language, mostly from Cuomo.

The host of “Chris Cuomo Primetime” was angry that a stranger called him Fredo. That’s a reference to the dim-witted, double-crossing brother in “The Godfather.” In the video, Cuomo said calling Italians Fredo is like using the N-word. He also threatened the heckler several times, saying, “I’ll (expletive) ruin your (expletive). I’ll (expletive) throw you down these stairs like a (expletive) punk.”

On Tuesday, after the video went viral, Cuomo tweeted:

“Appreciate all the support but – truth is I should be better than the guys baiting me. This happens all the time these days. Often in front of my family. But there is a lesson: no need to add to the ugliness; I should be better than what I oppose.”

President Donald Trump couldn’t let it pass. He tweeted making fun of Cuomo and CNN:

“I thought Chris was Fredo also. The truth hurts. Totally lost it! Low ratings @CNN.”

But you might be surprised to learn who did support Cuomo: his Fox News rival Sean Hannity, who tweeted:

“I say good for @ChrisCuomo. He’s out with his 9 year old daughter,  and his wife, and this guy is being a jackass in front of his family. Imho Chris Cuomo has zero to apologize for. He deserves the apology.”

Whether it was Hannity’s tweet or something else, Trump tweeted again on Tuesday afternoon criticizing any Republican for supporting Cuomo. Trump tweeted:

“It always happens! When a Conservative does even a fraction of what Chris Cuomo did with his lunatic ranting, raving, & cursing, they get destroyed by the Fake News. But when a Liberal Democrat like Chris Cuomo does it, Republicans immediately come to his defense. We never learn!”

CNN put out a statement supporting Cuomo: “Chris Cuomo defended himself when he was verbally attacked with the use of an ethnic slur in an orchestrated setup. We completely support him.”

On the record about going on background

Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges. (New York State Sex Offender Registry via AP)

Here’s an interesting ethical question for journalists: If someone tells you something off the record or on background, and later that person dies, can you then reveal what that person told you?

This is coming up now because New York Times columnist James B. Stewart published a column Monday about a conversation he had a year ago with alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who died from an apparent suicide over the weekend. At the time, Stewart was working on a story about Tesla co-founder Elon Musk and heard Epstein was giving Musk advice. (Epstein and Musk denied those rumors.)

In Monday’s column, Stewart recalled a 90-minute interview inside Epstein’s Manhattan mansion. There were a few interesting details of Epstein’s life, as well as intriguing comments from Epstein in which he hinted he had dirt on powerful people. But he never named those people and never said what, exactly, the dirt was.

In his column, Stewart wrote, “When I contacted Mr. Epstein, he readily agreed to an interview. The caveat was that the conversation would be ‘on background,’ which meant I could use the information as long as I didn’t attribute it directly to him. (I consider that condition to have lapsed with his death.)”

Is that true? Are Epstein’s comments fair game now that he’s dead? I decided to check in with the two people I trust most when it comes to journalism ethics: my Poynter colleagues Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, who is not only the senior vice president at Poynter, but the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter.

My gut tells me — and Tomkins agreed — that Stewart’s time with Epstein should have remained on background, meaning it never becomes public. The exception would be if there was some greater public interest that the information become known — such as actual proof that others were engaging in illegal activity that was or is harmful to others.

McBride, however, agreed with Stewart, saying that when a source dies there’s no reason to keep the interview private unless the information would cause harm to an innocent person.

In the end, even Stewart wrote, “When I later reflected on our interview, I was struck by how little information Mr. Epstein had actually provided.”

Maybe for that reason, what Stewart learned on background should have stayed in the background.

GateHouse lays off more journalists

When GateHouse and Gannett announced plans last week to merge, there was a fear that layoffs could soon hit both newspaper chains. On Tuesday, GateHouse papers laid off several workers, but that’s likely more to do with disappointing quarterly results for New Media, which owns GateHouse, than a possible merger.

My story on details layoffs at several GateHouse shops. The worst hit was the Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, which parted ways with 14 employees, including five in the newsroom. That includes Ellis Williams, a sportswriter who accepted a job offer to join the Oklahoman only to have that offer withdrawn.

All this comes less than three months after GateHouse laid off several dozen journalists at newspapers all across the country. Meanwhile, the GateHouse-Gannett merger is not a done deal. As I mentioned in Tuesday’s newsletter, the New York Post reported that the executives are on a road trip this week in hopes of convincing investors to support the merger.

New York Times journalist demoted

The New York Times building. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file)

The New York Times editor involved in a couple of high-profile social media controversies has been demoted, according to a story broken by CNN’s Oliver Darcy. Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor for the Times, was demoted after a tweet in which he suggested Democratic representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were not truly from the Midwest and that Rep. John Lewis of Georgia was not really from the Deep South. The tweets have since been deleted.

There also was another incident involving an online squabble with Roxane Gay, who writes op-eds for the Times, after Gay criticized Weisman for a tweet about a congressional candidate of color.

In a statement, the Times said, “Jonathan Weisman met with (Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet) today and apologized for his recent serious lapses in judgment. As a consequence of his actions, he has been demoted and will no longer be overseeing the team that covers Congress or be active on social media. We don’t typically discuss personnel matters but we’re doing so in this instance with Jonathan’s knowledge.”

The demotion comes just a day after a Times staff meeting to clear the air about several topics, including Weisman’s recent behavior on Twitter.

Spanish version of LA Times sees changes

The Los Angeles Times told its staff in a memo Tuesday that the Los Angeles Times en Espanol ( will now be the primary platform for its Spanish-language journalism. The paper is retiring the Hoy Los Angeles brand that the Tribune Co. introduced in 2004. The change means Hoy publisher Roaldo Moran and members of the Hoy sales team will be leaving the company. Alejandro Maciel will become editor of the LA Times en Espanol.

News21 students investigate disaster relief

Electricity poles and lines lie toppled on the road after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

Spend some time reading this project about disaster recovery from some exceptional college students. It’s from the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, which features 37 student journalists from 19 universities and is headquartered at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

For this project, called “State of Emergency,” the students traveled to 25 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and conducted hundreds of interviews while reviewing thousands of pages of government documents.

The executive editor of the News21 is Jacquee Petchel, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for covering the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in South Florida. In a statement about the News21 project, Petchel said, “This deeply reported project brought to the forefront the lasting and troubling consequences of natural disasters and recovery, particularly for people living in remote, impoverished and storm-prone communities. What we found were thousands of people still coping with the aftermath months and even years after the fact.”

Our short attention span, even for tragedy

Everyone gets outraged over a mass shooting. But only for a little while. Axios studied Google searches about mass shootings and found interest in a specific shooting usually wanes after two to three weeks. There are occasionally exceptions, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012.

One other note: other searches spike in correlation with mass shootings. Interestingly, the phrase “gun control” was searched more often after school shootings involving kids.

Holly Schroth, a senior lecturer at the business school at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in social psychology, told Axios, “I believe people think more action will be taken for gun control when children are the victims because their death strikes an even deeper emotional chord among the population.”

Intro of the day

Love this lede in a column by The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins about the U.S. Olympic committee being “disappointed” if any athletes take a knee to protest:

“An organization that couldn’t bring itself to move against child molester Larry Nassar for allegations of abusing gymnasts suddenly wants to sanction athletes for acts of conscience? It’s laughable — deserving only of a derisive snort.”

Hot type

  • My colleague Ren LaForme is out with his latest weekly  “Try This!”digital tools newsletter. (Sign up, you’ll like it.) My favorite part of this week’s newsletter is Ren pointing out how BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith did an interview with Democratic presidential hopeful Tim Ryan entirely through text messages. What a smart idea.
  • Variety’s Cynthia Littleton has everything you need to know about the CBS-Viacom merger.
  • The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Joel Connelly has the story of a media uprising. The unionized news staff at KCTS and Crosscut are upset after well-respected managing editor Florangela Davila was abruptly let go.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

Upcoming Poynter training:

Want to get this briefing in your inbox? Sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
More by Tom Jones

More News

Back to News