“Awkward.” “Insane.” “A bit inappropriate.”
Those were some of the reactions from CNN insiders following Jeffrey Toobin’s cringeworthy on-air return as CNN’s chief legal analyst after a masturbatory Zoom work call derailed his journalistic career.
Toobin’s return to CNN after a nearly eight-month absence came on the heels of an aggressive lobbying campaign by his friends, according to two people familiar with the matter. CNN boss Jeff Zucker, while expressing concerns about how viewers would react, was also open to giving the famed lawyer a second chance.
Appearing on CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota’s afternoon show on Thursday, Toobin addressed the fallout over inappropriately exposing and touching himself during a virtual meeting with his New Yorker colleagues. Weeks after the incident, the magazine fired him as a staff writer—a position he had held for 27 years.
“Well, obviously, I wasn’t thinking very well or very much, and it was something that was inexplicable to me,” a sheepish Toobin told Camerota on Thursday. “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.”
While reiterating there was “no defense” for his conduct, Toobin also insisted that a New Yorker investigation found no other misconduct in his past and said he felt his termination was an “extreme punishment.” He also expressed gratitude to the cable news network—which has employed him since 2002—for bringing him back after granting him a leave of absence.
“I’m incredibly grateful to CNN for taking me back,” Toobin said. “But you know, other people are going to weigh in about whether it was appropriate for them to get rid of me and for CNN to keep me.”
Camerota, for her part, welcomed Toobin back into the fold at the end of the interview, saying that “many of us have really missed having your legal analysis” on the airwaves. “It is good to be back, and I hope to be a better person off-camera as well as on camera,” Toobin replied.
“The way [the network] brought him back on air was a bit inappropriate in terms of a full segment of mea culpa and then a hard pivot to his legal analysis on air,” one female CNN staffer said of the segment, referencing the fact that Toobin later weighed in on a current news story.
The same staffer noted that the “general feeling” from her co-workers is that while they “trust” The New Yorker’s investigation that the October 2020 incident was the only one of its kind in Toobin’s past, they also wonder if CNN followed through with an internal probe of its own.
“And if so, why weren’t we informed?” she added.
“It’s just awkward,” another network employee said, while another CNN staffer simply replied: “Oof.”
A person familiar with the matter, meanwhile, pointed out that while there were “mixed feelings” at the network about Toobin’s return, he was greeted warmly by those in the newsroom following his interview with Camerota.
“Men and women hugged him after he left the set,” the source noted. “They seemed happy he was back. It’s invisible if people are grossed out because they wouldn’t be the ones to come up to him. The couple dozen in the newsroom seem happy to have him back.”
The feeling wasn’t shared by other CNN insiders, however. One former CNN contributor said they weren’t “surprised” that the network brought Toobin back but that “it’s insane they have him on air” after his transgression. Another insider observed that CNN came across as hypocritical.
“Yeah, it’d be nice if occasionally CNN held itself to the same standards it correctly holds Fox to,” the source said.
That sentiment was echoed by several Fox News insiders and staffers, who noted that CNN reporters would be on their “high horse” and have a “field day” if Fox did the same thing, and “rightly so.” At the same time, these network insiders also said this was another example of the “boys’ club” looking to “protect itself.”
“It’s really atrocious that men who expose themselves on Zoom are welcomed back, yet a woman would be canceled in an instant,” another Fox insider said. “Toobin’s return shows that statements about investigations and making people feel ‘safe at work’ are nothing but lip service to shut people up.”
And as one CNN staffer put it, Zucker does indeed believe in giving a second chance to the longtime CNN pundit.
“Jeff thinks it’s one horrible, mortifying mistake and he shouldn’t lose his career over it,” the staffer said. “It shouldn’t be a death sentence for his career.”
CNN did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.
—additional reporting by Lachlan Cartwright