CNN’s messy situation just got a whole lot messier. And now one of CNN’s biggest stars is deservedly under scrutiny for crossing a journalistic line.
It’s a conflict of interest that has been more than a year in the making. It finally blew up in CNN’s face Thursday after revelations in a big scoop by The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Sarah Ellison: CNN primetime host Chris Cuomo advised his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the governor’s staff on how to respond to sexual harassment allegations made against the governor by several women.
Dawsey and Ellison wrote, “The cable news anchor encouraged his brother to take a defiant position and not to resign from the governor’s office, the people said. At one point, he used the phrase ‘cancel culture’ as a reason to hold firm in the face of the allegations, two people present on one call said.”
Stop and think about what happened here.
The host of a primetime show on one of the country’s biggest and most influential cable news networks is advising one of the most powerful and influential politicians in this country on how to handle serious sexual misconduct allegations.
This is highly inappropriate for a journalist.
CNN isn’t denying any of it. In a statement, CNN said, “Chris has not been involved in CNN’s extensive coverage of the allegations against Governor Cuomo — on air or behind the scenes. 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.”
The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote, “The reason that Chris Cuomo ‘acknowledges’ that it was inappropriate to advise his brother in strategy sessions is because, well, he got caught violating one of journalism’s clearest ethical red lines. He gets no credit for acknowledging the transgression, and how are we to trust the pledge not to backslide?”
CNN added Cuomo will not be disciplined.
I don’t even know where to start on all the problems with this.
But here’s a good place: We’re talking about serious allegations of sexual harassment. How do staffers at CNN — especially women — feel about a powerful employee trying to help someone, even if it is his brother, defuse and overcome allegations of disturbing sexual misbehavior? How do the women who made these allegations feel about a high-profile cable news network personality trying to help the man accused of such awful things? How about the citizens of New York?
Then there’s the journalism part of this.
It’s one thing to recuse yourself from coverage. It’s another to try to go behind the scenes and try to help shape what happens. Chris Cuomo is advising Gov. Cuomo on strategy, which you would assume includes how to deal with the media and change the media narrative. In other words, while Chris Cuomo’s colleagues and other media outlets are doggedly working on this story, Chris is advising his brother and his brother’s staff on how to deal with the media and their reporting.
And, at the heart of all this, a journalist is helping a politician.
As Nicholas Lemann, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, told the Post, “If you are actively advising a politician in trouble while being an on-air host on a news network, that’s not okay.”
CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote, “The revelation that Cuomo had advised his brother vexed staffers inside CNN. Multiple CNN staffers said they were bothered by Cuomo’s conduct and the violation of traditional journalistic standards.”
Chris Cuomo opened his “Cuomo Prime Time” show Thursday night by addressing the latest controversy. He said “of course I do” when commenting about giving his brother advice, adding “this is no revelation.”
He went on to say he can be objective about “just about any topic, but not about my family.” He said he is “fiercely loyal to his family.”
“But,” he said, “being a journalist and a brother to a politician is unique and a unique challenge and I have a unique responsibility to balance those roles. It’s not always easy.”
He said he understood why being looped into calls advising his brother was a problem for CNN, and said it will not happen again.
“It was a mistake,” Cuomo said, “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.”
Cuomo added that not only hasn’t he covered this story, but never tried to influence the network’s coverage of his brother.
“In fact,” he said, “I’ve been walled off from it.”
He said he knows where the line is
And yet he clearly crossed that line.
Look, I get it, Chris and Andrew are brothers. We can’t ask them to sever their relationship or for Chris to not give his love and support to his brother. But offering advice on this particular matter crosses a line that no journalist should cross. Being in meetings with the governor’s staff is more than troublesome.
What happens if another high-profile politician or powerful person is accused of sexual harassment? Can we trust Chris Cuomo to cover that story objectively? Must he recuse himself from all sexual harassment stories?
As far as what should happen now? To me, something has to be pretty egregious to call for a firing, and I don’t know if what Chris Cuomo did rises quite to that level.
But CNN should’ve seen all this coming, and now it has to live with the consequences — which is some viewers not being able to trust a major personality on its network.
Last year, as COVID-19 dominated the news, Chris Cuomo would invite the governor of New York on his primetime show to talk about the pandemic. Under normal circumstances, that would make perfect news sense — a cable news network interviewing the governor of a state that was a COVID-19 hot spot.
But this was not a normal circumstance. This was a major conflict of interest.
As the two brothers often threw playful jabs at each other and joked around while occasionally getting serious about COVID-19, many media critics and viewers pointed out the potential pitfalls of one brother interviewing a brother regularly. Through it all, CNN seemed to shrug its shoulders as if it was no big deal.
But it became a big deal.
First, the governor came under criticism for how his state handled certain aspects of COVID-19, such as what was going on in New York’s nursing homes. Then Gov. Cuomo was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior by several women. Only then did CNN truly address the conflict that was always there. In March, Chris said he would not talk about the allegations against his brother and that Andrew would no longer appear on Chris’ show.
By then, it was too late. The damage was done. Credibility for the network and, especially, Chris Cuomo took a hit. Gov. Cuomo was on Chris’ show when things were going well and the governor looked like a national star. But when Gov. Cuomo had to face difficult questions and controversies, Chris’ show put its head in the sand. (Although, to be fair, the rest of the network did cover the story.)
Now we find out that while the two were no longer talking on the air about the governor’s problems, they were talking in high-level strategy meetings. It’s yet another reminder of why Andrew Cuomo appearing on Chris’ show last year was so problematic.
And why a messy situation got a whole lot messier.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.
This story has been updated to include Chris Cuomo addressing the issue on his “Cuomo Prime Time” show Thursday night.