Whither CNN’s Chris Cuomo?
Now that his big brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has resigned following a sexual-harassment scandal, what’s next for the TV brother who helped him respond to it?
Did the younger brother have anything to do with the governor’s decision Tuesday to step down in two weeks? Why are some critics calling on Chris Cuomo to be fired?
And what does CNN have to say about the primetime anchor’s future at the network? So far, nothing, but CNN provided past statements concerning its top-rated star. USA TODAY also reached out to Chris Cuomo for comment.
Why does it matter what happens to Chris Cuomo?
“What happens to him at CNN is less important to me than what happens to all the other journalists whose ethics will be questioned and whose bond of trust with the citizens they serve could be damaged by the choices he made,” wrote Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, in an opinion piece for USA TODAY published this week.
“When it comes to credibility and trust, people don’t see individual reporters or news organizations. They see ‘the media.’ So when one journalist or outlet makes questionable choices, the tarnish can easily spread to others. And make no mistake about it, Cuomo’s choices in this situation are questionable – at best.”
Here’s what we know so far:
Where is Chris Cuomo?
On vacation at an undisclosed location. It’s a regularly scheduled, long-planned break, according to CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter, reporting on his Sunday show, “Reliable Sources.”
What role did Cuomo play in his brother’s scandal?
Tuesday’s scathing report by the New York state attorney general’s office on Andrew Cuomo’s alleged behavior also involved Chris, who was interviewed as part of the investigation and testified he urged his brother to show remorse in conference calls in which he participated.
“The attorney general’s report makes clear his actions went well beyond that,” says Bartzen Culver, including acting as a strategic adviser to the embattled governor’s team while his employer covered the scandal. Cuomo was instructed not to discuss his brother on air in recent weeks.
“CNN needs to commission a report of its own to determine just how its star anchor fit into this sexual harassment pushback effort,” Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple wrote. “What, precisely, did he say in the conference calls? Was he aware that the executive chamber had provided false information to the Albany Times-Union as the paper explored the predicament of “Trooper #1”? What role did he play in the governor’s denials?”
Why are some critics calling for Chris Cuomo’s head?
Wemple called on CNN to “investigate” Cuomo’s role in helping his brother respond to sexual harassment allegations.
Another Washington Post media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, called Cuomo’s actions “deplorable” and a failure to maintain “the most basic of journalistic principles, which are independence, fairness and impartiality.”
His “supposedly” long-planned vacation “should be turned into — at least — an unpaid suspension of significant length,” Sullivan wrote. “And CNN should be transparent with its viewers that its anchor acted unethically and that the network won’t countenance it.”
What has Chris Cuomo said about his involvement?
He admitted on air in May that he had talked to his brother and members of his staff in an advisory capacity as the governor’s scandal was blowing up. This was not supposed to happen, per his bosses’ orders, and he apologized on air in May.
“When my brother’s situation became turbulent, being looped into calls with other friends of his, and advisers that did include some of his staff, I understand why that was a problem for CNN,” he said. “It will not happen again. It was a mistake, because I put my colleagues here, who I believe are the best in the business, in a bad spot. I never intended for that. I would never intend for that. And I am sorry for that.
“I’ve never tried to influence this network’s coverage of my brother. In fact, I’ve been walled off from it.”
But Cuomo’s explanation that he counseled the governor out of a sense of brotherly duty isn’t a good excuse, Bartzen Culver said.
“I would argue that makes the ethic of independence more important, not less,” she wrote. “He failed in (his) responsibility by entangling himself in his brother’s political strategy. And in doing so, he cast a shadow over the work of other journalists, as people – quite fairly – could see this as evidence that mainstream journalism is too close and too comfortable with the rich and powerful.”
Robert Thompson, founding director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, says Cuomo aiding his brother during the controversy is a “big red flag that anyone in any conversation about journalistic ethics would be raising. To a lot of people, Chris Cuomo’s credibility has been severely affected.”
What has CNN said about the conflict of interest?
The network was not pleased.
“Chris has not been involved in CNN’s extensive coverage of the allegations against Governor Cuomo, on air or behind the scenes,” the cable network said in a statement in May, “in part because, as he has said on his show, he could never be objective. But also because he often serves as a sounding board for his brother. However, it was inappropriate to engage in conversations that included members of the Governor’s staff, which Chris acknowledges. He will not participate in such conversations going forward.”
Why hasn’t Chris Cuomo talked about his brother’s scandal on his show?
CNN told him he couldn’t. Cuomo also explained this on air in March.
“Obviously, I’m aware of what’s going on with my brother. And obviously, I cannot cover it, because he is my brother,” he said. “Now, of course, CNN has to cover it. They have covered it extensively. And they will continue to do so. I have always cared very deeply about these issues, and profoundly so. I just wanted to tell you that.”
Although Thompson agrees that Cuomo “shouldn’t be covering his brother because he’s a subject in the story,” he says the network’s spotty approach proves “none of this is in the CNN handbook, because they don’t seem to be acting in any consistent kind of way.” That some anchor were “full-on” Cuomo while the governor’s brother ignored it “was a really, really problematic situation for viewers.”
What about those cozy pandemic chats between the brothers?
CNN said in a February statement that was different, because of the “extraordinary time” of the pandemic . Chris Cuomo had COVID, was under quarantine in his house, and was a useful way for his brother to urge constituents to take protective me
“We felt that Chris speaking with his brother about the challenges of what millions of American families were struggling with was of significant human interest,” the network said then. “As a result, we made an exception to a rule that we have had in place since 2013, which prevents Chris from interviewing and covering his brother, and that rule remains in place today. CNN has covered the news surrounding Governor Cuomo extensively.”
Should Cuomo resign or be fired?
Thompson believes both CNN and Cuomo can weather the storm of criticism.
“One of the reasons CNN is reluctant to get rid of Chris Cuomo is because he’s performing comparatively well on the network,” Thompson says. “If the decision is to keep him on, I don’t think it will knock CNN off the air. We’ve have seen some other reporters get into some very serious journalistic issues, who have come back and managed to survive these kinds of scandals.”