Chris Cuomo held up a giant cotton swab on TV last May and poked fun at his brother, the governor of New York, during an interview. Now journalism observers wonder if CNN must clean up a lapse in journalism ethics.
Cuomo anchors what has become CNN’s most-watched program, a 9 p.m. hour that in the not-too-distant past served as home to Larry King, the master of the genial celebrity interview. Cuomo can be amiable, too, but he is also master of a tough, on-air style that can veer from interview to interrogation, and guests on occasion can grow combative. His show, “Cuomo Prime Time,” is often viewed as a signature element of the Jeff Zucker era at CNN, during which the executive has helped foment a more lean-in attitude from a cable outlet once viewed as a vanilla dispenser of facts and stories.
At the height of coronavirus chaos, Cuomo won notice for heartwarming interviews with his older brother, Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor. The two siblings razzed each other, and the elder Cuomo got to display a light-hearted side that many officials in Albany, the state capital, don’t always get to see.
On Monday night, however, the younger Cuomo told viewers he would not be able to report on recent allegations that his brother harassed three different women who have come forward to relay accounts of encounters with him.
“Obviously, I’m aware of what’s going on with my brother. And obviously, I cannot cover it because he is my brother,” the anchor said at the start of his program.
That has prompted journalism observers to ask a question about CNN’s Cuomo anew: What was he doing interviewing his close relative in the first place?
“This is a no-brainer. Journalism Ethics 101: journalists should never cover family members. It’s a glaring conflict of interest,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of the broadcast journalism department at the University of Maryland and a former CNN staffer. “This wasn’t an accident. CNN made a deliberate programming decision to have the two bros yuk it up on the air. No doubt it was good for ratings. But not for the public’s perception of journalistic fairness.”
CNN declined to make executives available for comment, but issued a statement that it has offered a few times in recent weeks as new allegations about Governor Cuomo have spurred inquiries about the propriety of having him speak with Anchor Cuomo: “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. CNN has covered the news surrounding Governor Cuomo extensively.”
Some prominent news organizations have taken pains to separate employees from coverage of relatives who gain traction in the public sphere. At CBS News, former division president David Rhodes kept himself away from editorial decisions that had to do with coverage of his brother, Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser during the Obama administration. In 2019, James Bennet, the former editorial page editor, recused himself from any of his department’s coverage of the run up to the 2020 presidential election after his brother, a Colorado Senator, announced his candidacy.
CNN has invested heavily in Cuomo, turning him from a pugnacious A.M. co-anchor on “New Day” to its best hope for making up any audience deficits it has during the most competitive hour in cable news, when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity are also offering commentary on the day’s news cycle. The show’s viewership has declined in recent weeks, as interest in the presidential transition has subsided, but in February it is noticeably up over its levels from a year ago. He has an outsize personality on the air — and off. Cuomo has “gone viral” for the way he chronicled his bouts with coronavirus while broadcasting from home, and also for argumentative encounters he has had with people who try to prod a reaction from him and cause mischief on social media.
The anchor may have some leeway, suggests Jason Mollica, a professor at American University’s School of Communication. In recent years, cable-news primetime has become a place for punditry and opinion, with the just-the-facts stuff relegated to mid-morning and early-afternoon hours. “This isn’t going on during a news program with Wolf Blitzer or on Shep Smith on CNBC,” says Mollica, who believes viewers have come to expect news-with-a view once the sun begins to set outside.
No one would expect Cuomo to be tough on his brother during one of his appearances, he says. “People that are asking him, ‘Why weren’t you tougher on him,’ I would say if that were your brother or sister, would you ask those questions? Most likely not.” But that, he adds, is probably a good reason not to put the anchor in that sort of position.
In an era when the economics of media are changing and TV companies are eager to use live news and sports to keep viewers glued to a traditional screen, it’s little wonder that many of the medium’s rules are being broken. And yet, some — like those governing who interviews prominent political leaders — should probably remain for a little while longer.