CNN’s Cuomo Conundrum: A Star Anchor With a Brother in Trouble
Earlier this year, CNN executives pitched an idea to their star anchor Chris Cuomo. If he wanted to formally advise his brother, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of New York City, on responding to the sexual harassment accusations that had engulfed his administration, he could take a temporary leave of absence from CNN and return to the network later.
The idea was informal and strictly optional – not a request – and was intended as recognition of Mr. Cuomo’s unique position as a prime-time network presenter and brother to a prominent politician facing scandal, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations.
The previously unreported exchange highlights the conundrum of a news network whose top-rated presenter is from one of the most powerful Democratic families in the country – and the efforts the president of CNN, Jeff Zucker, and his team deployed to fit Chris Cuomo, although the presenter had to apologize for taking part in strategy sessions with Andrew Cuomo’s assistants.
The idea of a possible leave was floated after Chris Cuomo’s participation in these sessions was first reported in May. CNN called the presenter’s actions “inappropriate,” although Chris Cuomo was not disciplined.
A more detailed account emerged Tuesday in a report by New York State Attorney General Letitia James, which plunged Governor Cuomo’s career into crisis and sparked a cascade of calls for his resignation.
Chris Cuomo has told CNN management he plans to continue his agenda and abide by the rules preventing him from commenting on his brother’s scandal, people said. He also vowed not to discuss Andrew Cuomo’s strategic response to the scandal with government officials outside of the governor himself.
On Tuesday, hours after Ms James’ report was released, Chris Cuomo was in the presenter’s chair for his 9 p.m. show, “Cuomo Prime Time.” He opened with a segment on the coronavirus, releasing a clip of President Biden asking governors to help stop the spread of the Delta variant.
The clip omitted Mr. Biden’s other notable statement: calling on Governor Cuomo to resign.
For the next 60 minutes, Chris Cuomo, who had been interviewed by Ms James’ office during the investigation, did not mention either his brother or the attorney general’s report. It was in keeping with the anchor’s pledge not to cover his brother’s suffering. But viewers may have found it shocking that the country’s greatest political history – otherwise covered by CNN throughout the day – abruptly vanished at 9 p.m., the highest-rated time slot on the network.
Chris Cuomo’s on-air presence was a clear signal that Mr Zucker is entirely behind the network’s 9pm presenter, who told viewers in May that while he made “a mistake” in speaking with his brother’s assistants, his loyalty would always be to “family first, then work”.
CNN declined to comment on Chris Cuomo’s cameo in the attorney general’s report, instead highlighting remarks made by the network in May. This statement recognized that the anchor “could never be objective” and “often served as a sounding board for its brother”. He also said it was “inappropriate” for him “to engage in conversations involving members of the governor’s staff.”
Daily business briefing
In private conversations this week, some CNN reporters expressed dismay that Chris Cuomo did not address the story on his Tuesday show. Some have argued that CNN should have disciplined him, according to several people with knowledge of the internal discussions.
These internal critics did not want to speak officially, for fear of upsetting the management. In May, presenter Jake Tapper told the New York Times that Chris Cuomo’s engagement with Governor Cuomo’s aides “put us in a bad spot,” adding, “I can’t imagine a world in which anyone in journalism thinks it was appropriate.
“I certainly understand the love Chris has for his brother, and I have a brother and I understand that, but it wasn’t a fun day,” Mr. Tapper said at the time.
Chris Cuomo is a veteran television reporter whose tenure at ABC News included reporting on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Zucker poached him in 2013 to co-host a CNN morning show, “New Day.” In 2018, he switched to prime time, hosting an hour of news and commentary with provocative interviews and colorful monologues that often incorporated his slogan, “Let’s go after.”
Ethics rules for cable news commentators may be more flexible than those for reporters, although MSNBC stopped paying historian Jon Meacham last year after helping write speeches for the Biden campaign. Fox News prime-time hosts have regularly advised Donald J. Trump during his presidency – Sean Hannity even appeared at a Trump campaign rally – but Mr. Zucker has often severely criticized Fox News for permitting these practices .
At CNN, Chris Cuomo rarely interviewed his brother. A handful of exceptions in 2013 – including one occasion when Andrew Cuomo was included on People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive” list – have been condemned by media critics.
But the governor became a fixture on “Cuomo Prime Time” last year at the start of the pandemic, after Chris Cuomo tested positive for the coronavirus. These interviews – full of family memories and brotherly teasing – drew a large following and helped revive Andrew Cuomo’s national image; Mr. Zucker praised the segments in an interview with The Times for their “authenticity, relativity and vulnerability.”
Andrew Cuomo was quickly criticized for New York State’s response to the coronavirus. It was also revealed that Chris Cuomo was given special access to government-run testing facilities, including a police escort for test samples, when he was battling the virus. (At the time, CNN said that Chris Cuomo “turned to anyone he could for advice and help, just like any human being.”)
Chris Cuomo is expected to take a long-planned vacation next week. On Tuesday, “Cuomo Prime Time” was CNN’s top-rated program, drawing 930,000 viewers. As the host prepared to sign, 10pm host Don Lemon offered a few warm words to his introduction.
“I love you, brother,” Mr. Lemon said.
“I love you, D. Lemon,” replied Mr. Cuomo.
Then Mr. Lemon started his program.
“The calls are getting louder,” he told viewers. “That’s what I’m talking about: New York’s top Democrats in the White House calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to step down.”
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