UPDATED WITH CNN RESPONSE: Insisting that Morgan Freeman is being viewed “as someone akin to… Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey,” an attorney for the 80-year-old actor has hit back at CNN by demanding a retraction and a public apology for a report accusing Freeman of multiple incidences of harassment.
In a 10-page letter addressed to CNN President Jeff Zucker, Los Angeles attorney Robert M. Schwartz accuses the outlet of “malicious intent, falsehoods, slight-of-hand, an absence of editorial control, and journalistic malpractice” for its story about 16 individuals who accused the world-famous actor of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior. Since the report, Visa suspended a marketing campaign featuring Freeman, while the Screen Actors Guild was reportedly considering whether to revoke the recent lifetime achievement award it gave to Freeman.
“Predictably, those who work with Mr. Freeman have felt the need to distance themselves and to consider suspending further engagement,” Schwartz writes. “The damage CNN has inflicted is real. And given Mr. Freeman’s career and many motion picture and television commitments, it is substantial.”
CNN released this statement shortly after the letter was released to the press by Freeman’s attorney: “The unfounded accusations made by Mr. Freeman’s lawyer are disappointing and are difficult to reconcile with Mr. Freeman’s own public statements in the aftermath of the story. CNN stands by its reporting and will respond forcefully to any attempt by Mr. Freeman or his representatives to intimidate us from covering this important public issue.”
The CNN story originated with an incident involving author/TV entertainment reporter Chloe Melas, the only accuser who didn’t claim anonymity. She alleged that Freeman made inappropriate remarks during a press junket interview for Going In Style, saying he shook her hand while looking her up and down and saying “I wish I was there” and “You are ripe.” Mela was six months pregnant at the time.
Schwartz writes that Melas “had no reasonable basis to have interpreted what Mr. Freeman said or did … as having been directed at her or as any form of harassment.” He also said “an independent third party, the Warner Bros. Human Resources Department, investigated her claim and concluded that it was not supported by the facts.”
Freeman’s lawyer also challenges CNN for allowing Melas to co-author the story with An Phung. “If CNN were committed to impartial reporting about Mr. Freeman, on a topic of extreme sensitivity and with the potential to destroy him, CNN should not have allowed that breakdown to occur. But CNN did,” Schwartz writes.
The letter goes on to accuse Melas of finding “a few people who were willing to say bad things about Mr. Freeman” and mentions how one woman who was named in the story, Tyra Martin, has since participated in a televised interview saying, “That wasn’t my experience with Morgan Freeman. The interviews were always fun for me.” In all, the story chronicles the experiences of eight women, all of whom alleged they were victims of either harassment or inappropriate behavior from Freeman.
Schwartz also disputes allegations against Freeman’s producing partner Lori McCreary, saying, “CNN is flat out wrong in stating that Ms. McCreary ‘witnessed’ Mr. Freeman engage in harassment and, implicitly, did nothing about it.”
After the initial report, Morgan released a statement via his publicist that said “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.” A day later, he issued a longer response that said, in part, that he “did not assault women” nor “create unsafe work environments.”