June 11, 2021

Last October, while on a Zoom call with fellow staffers at The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin was seen masturbating on camera.

Toobin was immediately suspended and then ultimately fired from The New Yorker. Meanwhile, CNN, which used Toobin as a chief legal analyst, suspended him. But it did not fire him.

On Thursday, Toobin returned to CNN. He is back on the air.

But before Toobin resumed his normal role with the network, CNN did the right thing by addressing why Toobin has been off the air.

CNN’s Alisyn Camerota asked Toobin on air, “To quote Jay Leno, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’” (Leno famously asked that of Hugh Grant after the actor was caught in a car with a sex worker in 1995.)

Toobin said, “Well, obviously, I wasn’t thinking very well or very much, and it was something that was inexplicable to me.”

Toobin told Camerota that he didn’t think anyone on the call could see him, nor did he intend to be seen. But he still called his actions “deeply moronic and indefensible.”

He apologized to those who read and watch his work and said he has “got a lot to rebuild.” He said he is thankful for the opportunity to do that, but also said that he thought being fired by The New Yorker was “excessive punishment.”

“But look,” Toobin said, “that’s why they don’t ask the criminal to be the judge in his own case.”

He added, “I have spent the seven subsequent months — miserable months in my life, I can certainly confess — trying to be a better person. I’m in therapy, trying to do some public service, working in a food bank which I certainly am going to continue to do.”

CNN’s Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy reported Toobin will be back on CNN regularly as the network’s chief legal analyst.

Toobin thinks The New Yorker firing was excessive punishment. Many will believe CNN allowing him to return isn’t enough punishment.

Toobin makes the case that he has had a spotless record except for this incident and that he has paid a price and should be forgiven for what happened. Others believe this incident — even if isolated and not on a CNN call — is bad enough to never let him on the air again.

Regardless of Toobin’s intentions and past history, this feels like something so egregious that it simply can’t be dismissed. Frankly, I’m stunned CNN brought him back.

In defense of sources

Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards leaves court this week after receiving a six-month prison sentence for leaking confidential financial reports to a journalist at BuzzFeed News. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister)

Earlier this week, former Treasury Department official Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards was sentenced to six months in prison for providing government documents on suspicious financial transactions to a reporter from BuzzFeed News. The documents Edwards leaked were related to the Robert Mueller investigation and ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Now, in an opinion essay for The New York Times, BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Mark Schoofs defends Edwards. He wrote, “If Mr. Biden really wants to fight corruption and bring transparency to global finance, he should pardon Ms. Edwards. He should also demand that the Justice Department, when deciding whether to prosecute someone who provides journalists with sensitive information, take into account the public importance of what the disclosures reveal.”

Schoofs points out that Edwards’ sentencing comes at a time when it has been revealed that the Justice Department, while trying to figure out where leaks inside the government were coming from, secretly seized phone and email records of journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. It was a practice that started during the Trump administration but continued under President Joe Biden. (Biden says the practice will stop and Attorney General Merrick Garland is set to meet with the Times, Post and CNN next week.)

Schoofs wrote, “Such actions reveal a fundamental contradiction in how the United States — home of the First Amendment and laws to protect whistle-blowers — treats the sources that make a robust press possible. The government has generally avoided prosecuting journalists. But it seems to feel no compunction about going after the people who give journalists their information.”

He added, “The value of Ms. Edwards’s disclosures, like those of so many people prosecuted for divulging documents of urgent public interest, far outweighs any harm they did. The Biden administration should acknowledge — in word and in deed — that individuals who reveal information of vital public importance are not criminals. They are patriots who deserve our gratitude.”

Headed overseas

All three network anchors are headed to Geneva to cover President Biden’s summit next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. ABC’s David Muir, CBS’s Norah O’Donnell and NBC’s Lester Holt all will anchor their nightly news broadcasts in the evenings leading up to next Wednesday’s summit.

The future of news

NBC News president Noah Oppenheim spoke Thursday at the Financial Times’ Future of News conference and addressed one of the biggest problems in the business today: the polarization of news and disinformation.

Oppenheim said, “We believe that there is a robust audience for traditional journalism and we want to be the best in that game.”

Still, what about disinformation?

Oppenheim said, “How we combat disinformation I think is a challenge for our whole society, not just news organizations. What we can do at NBC News is stay true to those journalistic principles … and remain committed to them, correct our mistakes when we make them. And again, at any given moment, try to give people the best available version of the facts and of the truth.”

Meanwhile, one of the biggest changes we’ve seen in 2021 is a news cycle that doesn’t revolve around Donald Trump. Oppenheim mentioned how NBC News has picked different weeklong topics to focus on. For instance, NBC News has spent entire weeks in 2021 devoted to coverage of topics such as climate, immigration and equity.

“We set out very purposely at the beginning of the year,” Oppenheim said, “where I sort of challenged the news organization and said, let’s every week, pick some topic, some dynamic that we want to explore and devote all of our resources around it and try to do great original journalism that we can then push out across all of our platforms. We call them theme weeks internally. It’s a little bit of a cheesy name but what it really means is we’re getting together and we’re saying we’re going to go out and unearth as many original pieces and stories as we can around certain topics that we think are important.”

As a viewer, I’ve found such theme weeks to be excellent TV journalism.

And as far as the future of journalism, Oppenheim said, “I’m optimistic that the truth will prevail in the end and it sometimes takes a very long time, and it’s very unpleasant and painful until it does. But I have to believe that at the end of the day, it does win out.”

It’s Pulitzer day

Today is Pulitzer Prize day. The most prestigious awards in journalism will be announced today, starting at 1 p.m. Eastern. Be sure to check back with Poynter throughout the day for the very latest and best Pulitzer coverage.

In case you missed it, as he does every year for Poynter, Roy J. Harris Jr. has a preview and some thoughts on who could win today’s big awards.

If you’re saying, “Wait, isn’t this a little late in the year for the Pulitzers?” well, you’re right. The awards are typically announced in April. But the pandemic has thrown off the schedule for the past couple of years. This year’s awards were pushed back so that the Pulitzer judges could actually meet in person and do so safely. They met earlier this week at Columbia University in New York and the big announcement is today.

The Livingston Awards

Speaking of awards, The 2021 Livingston Award winners were announced Thursday. The awards — presented by Wallace House and the University of Michigan — honor the best local, national and international reporting by journalists under the age of 35 across all forms of journalism.

The winners — including descriptions from the awards — were:

  • Local reporting: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Joshua Sharpe for “The Imperfect Alibi,” which reexamined a decades-old double murder and proved the innocence of a man wrongly convicted.
  • National reporting: The Washington Post’s Hannah Dreier for “Trust and Consequences,” which was a portrait of a teenage asylum-seeker fleeing Honduras. He was held in U.S. custody and then had the notes from sessions with a therapist turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and used against him in court proceedings.
  • International reporting: The Wall Street Journal’s Chao Deng for “On the Front Lines in Wuhan,” a series of reports which looked back at the early stage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Woodruff honored

Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of “PBS Newshour.” (Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

“PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff has been awarded the first-ever Peabody Award for Journalistic Integrity. Woodruff was presented the award Thursday via video by actress Jane Fonda.

Fonda said, “Judy Woodruff’s trailblazing career is a testament to many things. To the fierce strength of a woman in a male-dominated field, to the professional craft of writing and reporting, and to our collective experience of American history and politics, but above all, Judy Woodruff is a testament to the discipline of telling the truth to the public.”


Woodruff was the recipient of the Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism in 2017.

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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…
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