CNN has a Chris Cuomo problem—and the network only has itself to blame.
Last spring, as Covid-19 spread like wildfire across the country, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was a regular guest on his brother Chris’s nightly show on CNN. The segments were a kind of miniature reality show—I dubbed it Keeping Up With the Cuomos last April. There was good-natured ribbing and arguments about who their mother loved more. Chris noted that his brother, recently separated from his long-term partner, was “single and ready to mingle.” But mostly, they talked about the ongoing pandemic and the uncertainty it was engendering. For the New York governor, these segments were extensions of his then–extremely popular daily briefings—part pep talk, part info dump, part acknowledgment of a scary and uncertain moment in American life.
When Chris came down with Covid-19—during which time he says he shivered so badly that he chipped a tooth and saw a vision of his father, the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo—the two used it as an opportunity to teach people about just how serious the virus was. And Chris regularly talked his brother up: Here was a governor committed to the people’s business who was doing a great job. “Governor Andrew Cuomo, I appreciate you coming on the show. I love you. I’m proud of what you’re doing, I know you’re working hard for your state. But no matter how hard you’re working, there’s always time to call Mom,” Chris said in late March. “She wants to hear from you. Just so you know.”
In June, he went even further, saying, “Obviously, I love you as a brother; obviously, I’ll never be objective; obviously, I think you’re the best politician in the country. But I hope you feel good about what you did for your people because I know they appreciate it.”
The arrangement was, as many noted at the time, spectacularly unethical. There is no doubt that CNN understood this to be the case: Back in 2013, the network blocked Chris from ever interviewing his brother. But the moment Andrew became a ratings draw, these rules went by the wayside. Chris Cuomo, moreover, made it abundantly clear that he had no interest in scrutinizing either his brother’s record or New York’s response to Covid-19. The segments that resulted managed to humanize Andrew Cuomo—which is no mean feat. But it’s hardly surprising. CNN permitted one of its top anchors to use the network’s broadcast platform and journalistic imprimatur to stage elaborate infomercials for his powerful brother, making the case, again and again, that he was doing a phenomenal job.
CNN did belatedly put an end to the segments in February 2021, long after the damage was done. As Andrew Cuomo became engulfed by scandal—first by revelations that his office had worked to undercount nursing home deaths in the state and then by a wave of sexual harassment allegations—Chris made an abrupt about-face on the news value of his access to his brother and suddenly rediscovered journalistic ethics when they afforded him the opportunity to stay out of the spotlight.
“Obviously, I’m aware of what’s going on with my brother,” Chris Cuomo said at the time. “Obviously, I cannot cover it because he is my brother. Now, of course, CNN has to cover it. They have covered it extensively, and they will continue to do so.” But while Chris Cuomo was no longer publicly discussing his brother live on the air, he was doing so behind closed doors, deploying his professional expertise in an all-out effort to help his brother survive media scrutiny and public opprobrium.
Over the last several months, Chris has served as an informal adviser to his brother as he attempted to hold onto his job and avoid impeachment. A report from New York Attorney General Letitia James found that Chris was advising his brother’s communication strategy and had even drafted a statement indicating that the whole thing was a misunderstanding: “Sometimes I am playful and make jokes,” that draft read, in part. “My only desire is to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.” Andrew Cuomo resigned on Tuesday—while using a similar defense to the one proposed by his brother—but Chris—who is currently (and fortuitously) on vacation—still has a job.
There has been some suggestion that these matters fall under a journalistic gray area. Chris, after all, has not publicly discussed or reported on the allegations against his brother or his decision to resign. He has not misinformed the public, nor has he covered up his involvement with his brother’s defense. (He acknowledged that he had been “looped into calls” back in May, when he apologized and noted that the calls were “inappropriate.”) But there is no “blood is thicker than water” card in journalism; nothing that says that all journalistic ethics go out the window when a family member is involved.
CNN and Chris Cuomo may—and certainly will—suggest that this is a onetime lapse of judgment and that a sense of probity will reassert itself when Chris returns to covering those who are not members of his family. But Chris’s involvement goes beyond incidental brotherly advice. Cuomo reportedly advised his brother to take a “defiant” position in response to the allegations and suggested he use the phrase “cancel culture.” That goes well beyond being “looped into” a few calls. His participation in discussions of how the governor of New York responded to sexual harassment allegations undercuts his ability to adequately cover sexual harassment allegations in politics, full stop. It may very well undercut his ability to cover politics, as well: For as long as he is discussing politics on CNN, the subjects of his scrutiny will be able to throw this sordid episode back in his face, and they will. The charges of journalistic malpractice, moreover, will accrue to CNN’s other anchors and journalists, however unfairly that may be. It is hard to say how the network continues with him, unless it is prepared to exist in a perpetual state of mini-scandal.
Chris Cuomo certainly deserves blame—and, at the very least, a long suspension—for advising his brother. But CNN’s brass, who approved of this corrupt arrangement, deserve the greater share of condemnation. By abandoning its policy of not allowing him to cover his brother last spring, the network created an ethical morass where none previously existed. It gleefully allowed its anchor to lob softballs at his brother because it was good for ratings; as soon as that governor fell in the public’s estimation, he stopped showing up.
None of this was rooted in the interests of journalism or the ethics that underpin the industry; it was a cynical business decision, not that anyone at CNN will simply admit it. It’s hard for the network to punish Chris Cuomo for giving his brother a helping hand and a pat on the back because CNN’s editorial policy for much of 2020 was that giving Andrew Cuomo a helping hand and a pat on the back was good television. But it should never be forgotten that CNN’s profit play helped whitewash Andrew Cuomo’s derelict record on Covid-19 and in his own decrepit professional life. These are the true stories CNN chose to not tell its viewers. It should pay a price for this failure.