CNN’s Cuomo problem just keeps getting worse

Here's one way to fix it

Andrew and Chris Cuomo

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

CNN host Chris Cuomo’s inextricable conflict of interest received new attention on Thursday when The Washington Post revealed his participation in strategy calls earlier this year advising his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), on how to respond to women who had worked with the governor and said that he had sexually harassed them. Chris Cuomo “encouraged his brother to take a defiant position and not to resign from the governor’s office” in discussions that “included the Democratic governor, his top aide, his communications team, lawyers and a number of outside advisers,” the Post reported.

The CNN host’s actions were an obvious breach of a red line in journalistic ethics for a member of the press to counsel a politician on how to respond to a political crisis, as his own colleagues subsequently told a CNN reporter. Whether Cuomo is an “opinion” or “news” host is immaterial -- the basic ethical standards still apply. And that requires a response that ensures CNN’s viewers get credible coverage that is untainted by the host’s familial ties. 

CNN appears more interested in damage control than accountability. In a statement to the Post, the network acknowledged that it knew Cuomo served as his brother’s “sounding board,” but added that it was “inappropriate” for him to do so in calls that included the governor’s staff and that he would not do so again. That sounds an awful lot like the network saying that Cuomo’s error was that he put himself in a position to get caught, and that he should make sure not to advise his brother before witnesses in the future. For his part, Cuomo apologized on-air on Thursday night -- but to his coworkers, for putting them “in a bad spot,” rather than to his viewers, for having concealed his political activities, and declared, “I’m family first, job second.”

These public statements go significantly further than Fox News went as several of its hosts regularly advised and even appeared at campaign events for Donald Trump. But CNN should have higher aspirations than being more ethical than the former president’s propaganda channel.

Ideally, Cuomo wouldn’t be advising his brother at all. But it’s clear he’s not willing to stop, CNN isn’t willing to stop him, and even if he agreed to do so, there would be no way to ensure he was following through. Moreover, expecting impartial coverage from a cable news host about his brother the governor is unrealistic under any circumstances.

The closest thing I can think of to a solution is this: CNN and Chris Cuomo should publicly commit that he will not use his show to discuss not just Andrew Cuomo, but issues connected to New York State politics and governance. But a major cable news network can’t ignore important events in a major state on one of its prime-time hours. The network should designate a host and production team to replace him on-air when there are New York-linked stories of national importance so that CNN’s viewers still get the necessary coverage they deserve in spite of the host’s massive conflict of interest.

The original sin here is CNN’s decision last spring, as the coronavirus engulfed New York, to override its yearslong ban on the brothers interacting on-air by allowing Chris to repeatedly interview Andrew. While the interviews included some serious discussion of the ongoing pandemic, they drew more attention for the way the brothers roasted each other. The CNN interviews helped burnish Andrew Cuomo’s reputation for managing the virus to the point where he commanded a reported $5 million payout to write a memoir about New York’s response.

These interviews struck me at the time as an obvious breach of basic standards of journalistic ethics.

Other media observers presented mixed reactions, and CNN still defends the interviews to this day, recently telling Washington Post’s Erik Wemple:

The early months of the pandemic crisis were an extraordinary time. 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. 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.

But the last year has not been kind to the Cuomo interviews or their defenders. Federal investigators are reportedly conducting a multi-pronged investigation into the Cuomo administration’s handling of the pandemic, looking into topics including whether Cuomo’s administration gave the Justice Department false data downplaying the number of deaths of nursing home residents from COVID-19 and whether his administration illegally gave special priority to the governor’s family -- including Chris Cuomo -- to access then-scarce coronavirus testing in the early days of the outbreak. He also faces a state investigation into whether he improperly used state resources to write and promote his pandemic memoir.

Several women who worked with or knew the governor also came forward this spring saying that he had sexually harassed them, generating a political and legal firestorm. As their numbers swelled, Chris Cuomo told his audience that he was aware of their statements but “obviously” could not cover them because of his relationship with his brother. He did not reveal, however, that that relationship included him advising his brother on how to respond to those women.

But now we know the truth. 

This conflict of interest can’t be settled on a case-by-case basis, with Cuomo and his bosses picking and choosing when he reports on events in New York. If CNN can’t promise ethical treatment of that topic from one of its prime-time hours -- and it’s clear that it can’t -- the network needs to work around him.