The Media Today

Chris Cuomo, suspended from Prime Time

December 1, 2021
Photo by: John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx 2021 11/30/21 CNN suspends Chris Cuomo indefinitely. STAR MAX File Photo: 12/9/18 Chris Cuomo at the 12th Annual CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

On Monday night, Chris Cuomo opened his show on CNN with some media criticism. “I will take a little bit of a different take than a lot of other media: I don’t know that it helped, this Thanksgiving holiday, to have the media blasting word of this new COVID variant Omicron,” he said of the latest development in the pandemic, about which we still understand very little. “Why don’t we just treat it as an unknown until we know?” he added. “All you’re really driving is more misgivings about the quality and nature of the messaging coming to the American people.” Cuomo went on to criticize news shows for rushing to interview “all the Big Pharma guys,” such as the CEO of Pfizer, when they don’t know much about Omicron either. The CEO of Pfizer had appeared on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show in the hour before Cuomo came on air.

While Cuomo was criticizing swathes of the media, swathes of the media were criticizing him. Earlier on Monday, the office of New York’s attorney general had released a tranche of documents, including text messages and interview transcripts, from the sexual-harassment probe that led earlier this year to the resignation of Chris Cuomo’s brother, Andrew, as the state’s governor. The new documents showed that Chris was in regular contact with Melissa DeRosa, Andrew’s top aide, as allegations against Andrew snowballed and that he actively lobbied to play a greater role in shaping Andrew’s defense, including by drafting a statement for Andrew that referred to “cancel culture.” Chris also went scouting for intel on Andrew’s accusers—“I have a lead on the wedding girl,” he told DeRosa, of one of them, before concluding that he didn’t have a lead after all—and worked his contacts within the media industry to find out whether more embarrassing stories about Andrew might be coming down the pike, with DeRosa pressing Chris for details of a then-forthcoming article by The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow. (Chris told state investigators that speaking to other journalists about unpublished stories is “business as usual.”)

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We already knew that Chris advised Andrew and his staff on their response to the sexual-harassment allegations: the Washington Post reported the basics of the story (and the “cancel culture” detail) in May, and further details came out in the investigators’ final report in August, ahead of Andrew’s resignation. After the Post’s story dropped, Chris acknowledged to his viewers that he made a “mistake,” but described himself as “family first, job second”; after the state report dropped, Chris (eventually) broached advice to Andrew again, insisting on air that he “never attacked nor encouraged anyone to attack any woman who came forward” and “never made calls to the press about my brother’s situation.” (So much for that.) Following the state report, in particular, other journalists—including at CNN—said that Chris should resign or be fired, though others, also including at CNN, defended him. (“No one chooses their family,” one staffer said.) Those calls intensified this week, as even media-watchers who previously stopped short argued that the new documents showed Chris crossing a clear line. “When Chris Cuomo simply offered advice to staff members, he failed to observe the rules CNN had set for his private behavior,” David A. Graham wrote for The Atlantic, under the headline “Chris Cuomo Must Go.” But “by gathering information from ‘sources’ and passing it to his brother’s staff, Cuomo committed the more egregious step of directly mixing the journalistic work of calling sources and gathering information with his personal, familial commitments.”

Management at CNN, for its part, stood by Chris through both the Post’s story and the state report; the network acknowledged, in the wake of the former, that Chris had broken its rules and behaved “inappropriately,” but also insisted that Chris had played no role in its coverage of Andrew’s scandals—since, by his own admission, Chris “could never be objective”—and did not discipline him. (Chris, of course, played a very prominent role in CNN’s coverage of Andrew’s perceived successes early in the pandemic, inviting Andrew for several gushing interviews on his show. The network defended these interviews as well as subsequent reports that Andrew secured privileged access to COVID testing for Chris around the same time, saying that Chris “turned to anyone he could for advice and assistance, as any human being would.”) This week, however, the network also seemed to conclude that a line had been crossed. On Monday, the network said that the new documents merited “thorough review and consideration,” and that bosses would discuss them “over the next several days.” They didn’t wait that long to take further action: yesterday, they suspended Chris indefinitely, adding that while they always understood his “unique position” and “need to put family first and job second,” the new documents “point to a greater level of involvement in his brother’s efforts than we previously knew.” Chris did not appear on air for his show last night. Cooper’s program ran into a second hour instead.

As I wrote in the summer, Chris’s advice to Andrew—and undisclosed privileged testing access, while he presented himself on air as a COVID everyman after coming down with the illness—revealed a basic inconsistency in his show’s self-conception: Chris has seemed to shuffle between the roles of family man, opinionated motormouth, and objective journalist as it has suited him. This was never sustainable, whatever you think of the quality of his show—and to my mind, the latest revelations, while very gross in their specifics, really only add layers of detail to a conflict of interest that was long visible and fundamentally untenable. Chris should never have been permitted to have it all ways. He now may not have it at all.

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Still, there’s a bigger story here than Chris: his employer’s conduct during this mess. As Erik Wemple, a media writer at the Post, pointed out this week, “100 percent of his misdeeds are also now the misdeeds of” Jeff Zucker, CNN’s president, who failed to initiate a thorough investigation of Cuomo after his role advising Andrew’s office surfaced and instead waited for the state of New York to force his hand. (As a result, Wemple noted, “the network that prizes itself on covering breaking news is months late to a story sitting right in its own office.”) And CNN’s failures in Chris’s case have not been limited to a deficit of curiosity. Letting Chris lob softballs at Andrew on air last year was wrong at the time, from a media-ethics standpoint, and was always going to invite uncomfortable scrutiny of CNN’s coverage when Andrew’s reputational stock inevitably fell—whether it let Chris continue to cover his brother or not. In failing to initially discipline Chris for breaking the rules, the network created the impression that different ethical standards apply to famous TV journalists with high ratings. And, in endorsing Chris’s “family first” arguments, it also endorsed the notion that it’s okay for journalists to help a powerful politician manage the fallout from serious allegations of wrongdoing, as long as they’re related. In such circumstances, it’s not “family first, job second” so much as “family first, job nowhere.” You can’t choose your family, but you can choose who gets a massive platform on your network and the standards they must maintain while they hold it.

On Monday, at the end of what would prove to be his last show on CNN (at least for a while), Chris signed off with his usual chummy handoff to Don Lemon, whose show follows his, and returned to his criticism that the Omicron story is being overblown. “I don’t think the society has a lot of tolerance right now for mixed messaging,” Chris said. “There are too many people set up to be too resistant to what they’re told to begin with.” He was talking, quite reasonably, about the pandemic, but his words could apply equally well to his interactions, both on-screen and off-, with his brother since the pandemic began. CNN’s journalists, and not just Chris Cuomo, have spoken often about the dangers of more and more people resisting the information they’re told. Excusing behavior like Chris’s can only make that problem worse.

Below, more on Chris and Andrew Cuomo and cable news:

  • No matter what?: After the Andrew report came out in the summer, current and former CNN employees griped to BuzzFeed’s Julia Reinstein that they didn’t expect there to be any consequences for Chris, with one saying that Zucker “has made it clear that he has Chris’s back no matter what”; the Post’s Sarah Ellison and Jeremy Barr report that some staffers are surprised that Chris has now been suspended after all. Ellison and Barr also note that Chris is still claiming publicly that Andrew did not get due process in the investigation into his conduct: on his SiriusXM show yesterday, Chris said that “Andrew had his party enforcing a rule against him that if you have accusations, you have problems, and you don’t really get to vet the accusations.”
  • Word Smith: Defector’s Laura Wagner and Patrick Redford combed through the new Cuomo-probe documents and found that Chris Cuomo “wasn’t the only media figure breaking a sweat trying to manage fallout for Andrew”: Lis Smith, a political consultant who crafted Pete Buttigieg’s omnipresent presidential campaign strategy, was implicated, too. At one point, Smith texted other Cuomo advisers to say that MSNBC’s Katy Tur was reading her spin “like verbatim” on air; at another, Smith detailed how she took “a fucking run at” a New York Times reporter who covered an accusation against Andrew, claiming that she told the reporter that his story was “an embarrassment to the times” and that she “especially looked forward to mocking it and him on twitter.”
  • Meanwhile, on Fox: On Monday, Lara Logan, a talking head on Fox News, claimed that “people all across the world” are comparing Dr. Anthony Fauci to the murderous Nazi physician Josef Mengele. Organizations including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Auschwitz Memorial swiftly condemned Logan’s comments; the latter called them “a sad symptom of moral and intellectual decline.” The same night, Fox’s Tucker Carlson called Fauci “an even shorter version of Benito Mussolini,” while a graphic on screen referred to Fauci as “the Patron Saint of Wuhan.”

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.