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CNN Covered Itself in Shame to Try to Save Chris Cuomo’s Career

The network bent journalistic rules for the star anchor and his brother in 2020. Can it be surprised that he did the same a year later?

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo stands in an office making a telephone call.
Donald Bowers/Getty Images
Chris Cuomo

On Tuesday, CNN finally did what it should have done many months ago: It took Chris Cuomo off the air. Since the spring, the cable news network had stood idly by, even after a series of reports revealed that Chris’s involvement in advising his brother—disgraced former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—amid his many sexual harassment and misconduct allegations, had gone much further than previously disclosed. This week, the scandal ratcheted up even more after reports circulated that Chris had been using his sources to aid in his brother’s defense, hunting for negative stories other news outlets were working on, and reportedly identifying one woman who had anonymously accused his brother of unwanted kissing at a wedding. Finally, the network’s top brass had to stop sitting on their hands and hoping things would blow over. In a statement released Wednesday evening, a CNN spokesperson announced that Cuomo would be suspended “indefinitely, pending further evaluation.”

In their statement, CNN largely parroted the defenses proffered by Chris and his backers. “When Chris admitted to us that he had offered advice to his brother’s staff, he broke our rules, and we acknowledged that publicly,” the spokesperson continued. “But we also appreciated the unique position he was in and understood his need to put family first and job second.” (Chris Cuomo had, following reports from May that he had been informally advising his brother for months, apologized and said that he had put “family first; job second,” without disclosing the extent of his involvement with his brother’s crisis team.)

It’s a woeful and wan defense: a feeble attempt to portray Chris Cuomo’s actions as being fundamentally virtuous when, in fact, he was using his perch as one of the most prominent news anchors in the country to smear victims and influence coverage of his even more powerful brother. Offering his brother love and support while he was beset with scandal—and remember, there is considerable evidence suggesting that Cuomo and his aides also deliberately undercounted Covid-19 deaths at nursing homes during the height of the pandemic—is one thing. But in this instance, we’re not talking about a sibling lending a shoulder to cry on or some such display of filial affection. Chris marshaled his own journalism bona fides and his considerable power in the industry in the service of helping his brother dodge matters with criminal implications.

It can be said plainly that Chris Cuomo only has himself to blame. Family is complicated, but the journalistic ethics here are not. Aiding his brother’s crisis management team to the extent that he did is a clear breach of professional standards, one that would make it impossible for Chris to cover any sexual misconduct story in the future—and one that would call into question his political coverage writ large.

But CNN must swallow a heaping helping of blame, as well. The network besmirched itself and its other journalists by waiting six months to yank Chris Cuomo off the air for an offense that would have brought a swift end to almost any other journalist’s career. The network willfully set aside journalistic standards in March 2020, when Chris was repeatedly allowed to interview his brother on air during prime time. It’s hardly a surprise that Chris Cuomo continued flouting the rules after CNN permitted that original ethical breach. Putting family first and job second was CNN’s policy during the spring of 2020, after all.

That spring, Andrew Cuomo was the hottest ticket on non-right-wing cable news. While President Trump was bungling the response to the pandemic, sticking his head in the sand and advertising various quack cures, Andrew Cuomo’s gruff, periodically paternal persona cut a contrast. He was, for many, a comforting force: a leader who appeared to understand the enormity of a frightening and uncertain situation and seemed determined actually to do something about it.

For years, CNN had a policy that prevented Chris Cuomo from covering his brother. The ethics couldn’t be clearer: Chris couldn’t possibly be seen as an objective or neutral presence given their familial bond. But when Andrew’s Covid press conferences started garnering attention as a Trump-weary public went looking for something approaching competence, Chris Cuomo’s presence on the network became a profitable opportunity: CNN had a cushy connection and direct access to the New York governor.

The network took advantage, tearing up the rule book that had been in place for years. Andrew Cuomo was suddenly a regular presence on Chris Cuomo’s show. There were jokes about who their mother loved best, advice about following the science, and occasional reflections on a strange and grave situation. When Chris fell ill with Covid-19, Andrew came on to give him a pep talk. Ultimately, these segments amounted to a kind of cable news reality show (at the time, I dubbed it “Keeping Up With the Cuomos”), in which two macho brothers did their best to reassure their viewers that, ultimately, everything was OK.

There was no journalistic purpose to any of these interviews—if you could even call them that. Ethical corners had been cut so that some viral pablum could be broadcast. And during the time Andrew was appearing on the network, he and his aides were also working to undercount Covid-19 deaths at nursing homes to bolster his image as a competent governor who was adept at facing crises. Because CNN had no tough questions to ask Cuomo about the job he was doing as governor, a big story went untold. Meanwhile, Andrew was allowed to pitch himself as America’s governor on prime time over and over again because it was good television that resulted in good ratings. It wasn’t until February 2021—after sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo finally surfaced—that CNN belatedly blocked Chris from interviewing or discussing his brother. Chris began advising him on how to weather the crises that were enveloping him.

Chris might have done so anyway. Twelve years his brother’s junior, he has spoken in the past of him as a surrogate father, someone who often stepped in when their father, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, was too busy to attend to paternal duties. But by that point, CNN had carved out an ethical gray area that made it impossible to define which journalistic standards applied to Chris Cuomo, let alone enforce them. How could they possibly discipline him for violating professional ethics with regard to his brother when CNN’s policy for much of 2020 was that violating those professional ethics was not only permissible but good for business?

Chris Cuomo may never appear on CNN again; it seems at this point highly unlikely that he will. He never should have helped his brother’s team track down accusers or, for that matter, even offered advice on how to respond. (Chris’s advice, for what it’s worth, was terrible. Per emails, he crowed about, among other things, getting Alec Baldwin to rant about cancel culture in his brother’s defense; it’s extraordinary that he imperiled his career and his network for … that.) Chris Cuomo never should have stepped over the lines that he did. He could have saved himself a world of trouble by taking a leave of absence from CNN to “put family first,” or restricted his aid to his troubled brother to private emotional support. Of course, that wouldn’t do—Chris’s value to Andrew was solely vested in the power of his journalistic perch and the lines he was willing to cross. But given that he was encouraged by his employer to use that power and cross those lines for months, can any of this truly come as a surprise?