In May 2018, CNN reporters An Phung and Chloe Melas published an investigative story about Morgan Freeman that detailed allegations of harassment and inappropriate behavior leveled by eight women.
So when Freeman’s voice was heard narrating the opening video at Tuesday’s WarnerMedia presentation to investors, it was a surprise — and a slap in the face to some CNN staffers, given that CNN is a WarnerMedia company.
“It’s disgusting,” one CNN employee told Variety. “So many of us were scratching our heads in shock, wondering how something like this could even happen.” (No CNN staffers would talk to Variety on the record for fear of reprisal.)
The video compilation was meant to illustrate AT&T’s, Warner Bros.’ and Turner’s accomplishments as separate companies that are now one. Imagery of telephones, satellites, movies (from “Casablanca” to the “Harry Potter” films), television shows (“Friends,” “ER”) and CNN journalists flashed across the screen at Warner Bros.’ Burbank headquarters, broadcast over a livestream to the public. The five-minute video led up to John Stankey, the AT&T president and COO and WarnerMedia CEO, taking the stage to introduce the company’s new streaming service, HBO Max — the key to its future.
“Innovation: It can be born out of a single spark,” intoned Freeman as the video played. “And this spark has spread to change our lives forever, connecting us instantaneously through the stars high above. Today, that spark is continuing to spread.”
A spokesperson for WarnerMedia did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did a CNN spokesperson.
In the CNN story, one of the women who alleged Freeman behaved inappropriately toward her was CNN’s Melas herself: “According to Melas, who was six months pregnant at the time, Freeman, in a room full of people, including his co-stars [Alan] Arkin and [Michael] Caine, shook Melas’ hand, not letting go while repeatedly looking her up and down and saying more than once a variation of, ‘I wish I was there.’ She says he also said to her, ‘You are ripe.’” (Melas and Phung did not respond to a request for comment.)
Freeman’s response to the story at the time was, “Anyone who knows me or has worked with me knows I am not someone who would intentionally offend or knowingly make anyone feel uneasy. I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected — that was never my intent.” He later went on to deny the allegations more strenuously, saying his attempts at humor had been misunderstood: “I did not create unsafe work environments. I did not assault women. I did not offer employment or advancement in exchange for sex. Any suggestion that I did so is completely false.” (Freeman’s representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Since the CNN story broke, the Oscar-winning Freeman has continued to work, but his public persona has taken a hit. While he was once the go-to actor for voiceover, having played the voice of God in “Bruce Almighty” and recently starring in NatGeo’s “The Story of God with Morgan Freeman,” the idea that WarnerMedia would shrug off its own reporting about him and pay him for this event felt like a gross oversight to CNN employees.
One former CNN employee expressed confusion about hiring Freeman, saying, “Of all the millions of people they could have hired, why him?”
A current employee told Variety that “people were texting about it, wondering how it happened.”
This source added that it appeared to be particularly “disrespectful” to Melas.
“Someone just wasn’t thinking, and didn’t do research, I guess.”
“It was tone deaf,” added a third CNN staffer.