CNN’s Support for Chris Cuomo Despite Ethical Lapses Exposes a Bigger Cable News Problem

Chris Cuomo
Jeremy Freeman

Anyone who has interviewed CNN anchor Chris Cuomo knows he can talk his way out of trouble, and sometimes talk himself into it.

On TV, his 10 p.m. handoffs to Don Lemon sometimes go on long enough that producers must worry about having to push back a commercial break. In person, a conversation with Cuomo is usually loose and unfettered, and he can get to chatting so intensely that he forgets about the talking points his minders at CNN would like him to keep at hand.

He’s going to have to count on that gift of gab in days to come.

Cuomo’s easy way with conversing on air has helped him become CNN’s most-watched anchor, and executives at the WarnerMedia news outlet are no doubt hoping his avuncular interviewing style and the “let’s-get-after-it” primetime mantra he espouses on his show, “Cuomo Prime Time,” will carry him forward even after he made an error that few journalists have the luxury to put behind them.

There’s no getting around it: Cuomo breached more than protocol when he helped his brother, outgoing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, devise strategy with other aides as the official was being accused of sexual harassment and other issues.  But the younger Cuomo’s return to the CNN lineup — he’s on vacation this week, after spending several primetime hours avoiding segments about his brother’s woes — won’t be too difficult, and not just because CNN executives have circled the wagons around their primetime star. Cuomo gets to come back to CNN because many of TV’s best known news organizations have stopped disciplining top anchors when they make egregious journalism transgressions.

To be sure, CNN acknowledged months ago that the anchor messed up. “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,” CNN said in a May statement. The network may have abetted its anchor by allowing him to interview his brother on this show several times in the early days of the pandemic. “The early months of the pandemic crisis were an extraordinary time,” CNN said in February. “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.”

Cuomo isn’t the first big TV-news personality to get caught up in an ethical mess. MSNBC’s Joy Reid in 2018 found herself under scrutiny after the discovery of a group of unsavory, even offensive, posts she made on a blog earlier in her journalism career. She made things more difficult when she claimed that an unknown party had hacked the now defunct blog, and even said at the time she had engaged a cybersecurity expert to find evidence — none of which has ever been brought to public discussion.

Her colleague, Lawrence O’Donnell, was forced to retract a report in 2019 in which he alleged Russia had co-signed many of President Trump’s loans. “We don’t know whether the information is inaccurate, but the fact is we do know it wasn’t ready for broadcast, and for that I apologize,” he had to say during one of his MSNBC broadcasts.  Fox News’ Sean Hannity on two different occasions lent a promotional boost to the campaign of former Pres. Donald Trump, appearing in a campaign video in one instance, and getting on stage at a Trump rally in the other. “Fox News does not condone any talent participating in campaign events,” the Fox Corp.-owned news network said in a statement in 2018. “This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed.”

None of the anchors were suspended or demoted, and none has seen their status at their respective employer hurt by their actions over the long run. That gives CNN room to craft a softer landing for Cuomo.

Cable news has in recent years given its personnel more license to go rogue. These days, some cable anchors serve up as much opinion as they do facts. But at the broadcast outlets, journalistic offenses do seem to carry repercussions. CBS News suspended correspondent Lara Logan in 2013 after a flawed “60 Minutes” report about Benghazi contained discredited information. ABC News suspended investigative correspondent Brian Ross in 2017 after an inaccurate report he delivered about former President Trump telling former national security adviser Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials during his candidacy sent the stock market reeling before the report was corrected. And NBC News in 2015 suspended Brian Williams after he related misleading information about his own reporting exploits during a 2003 trip to Iraq (Williams career has rebounded and he has his own show on MSNBC).

Some news executives may be paying as much attention to ratings and relationships as they do to ethics lapses. They are operating in an era when viewership is becoming harder to ensure. More consumers are migrating to streaming, on-demand video, and the trend is manifesting at a tough time for news outlets — in the months following a presidential election, when viewership typically declines noticeably.

NBC’s “Today” morning show for the week of July 12 had fewer than three million viewers — a level to which the show’s audience has not settled in some time. Among cable news networks, viewership is down in a critical demographic, people between 25 and 54, the audience advertisers care about most. CNN’s primetime viewership in that demographic plunged 58% in the second quarter, according to Nielsen, while Fox News Channel’s dropped 44% and MSNBC’s fell 37%. Fox News had the most viewers in that category during the period, followed by CNN.

In such a moment, it should come as little surprise that executives might want to keep “Cuomo Prime Time” on the air. They know it works. They may not know at this moment what might be able to replace it.

Governor Cuomo’s announcement Tuesday that he intends to leave office within the next two weeks makes CNN’s path to getting its anchor back on screen clear. The younger Cuomo still won’t be able to talk about his brother’s departure. But the big news about the resignation will be about a week old, a millennium in the modern TV news cycle. Chances are it won’t be the major story of the day, and Cuomo’s recent focus on the coronavirus just may return to the top headline.

TV news networks will always let some anchors go. In some cases, the relationship has frayed, as was the case between NBC News and Megyn Kelly (executives could have easily managed her error in discussing blackface on her morning program as they did Williams’ blunder). Brooke Baldwin, a popular afternoon anchor at CNN, left earlier this year after ceding one of her two hours at the network, and being taken off the air in the run-up to the election.

In other cases, money plays a part. The advent of streaming has started a small-scale poaching war. NBC News lured Tom Llanas from ABC News and CNN poached Kasie Hunt from NBC, all in the name of staffing up new streaming efforts to keep those outlets’ news product in front of a new generation of headline seekers.

But journalism breaches? As CNN’s efforts to cushion Chris Cuomo despite his recent behavior show, those simply aren’t cause for concern.

To get a news outlet’s attention these days, some parties are taking to the courts. Walt Disney found itself on the hook for at least $177 million in 2017 after a defamation lawsuit found ABC News had misused the phrase “pink slime” to describe beef products made by a South Dakota meat producer. More recently, voting technology firms Dominion Voting and Smartmatic have filed defamation suits against Fox News, and Dominion recently filed similar cases against Newsmax and OAN. Fox News has sought dismissal of both cases.

The current era is one that calls for TV journalists to be more careful, not less. Chris Cuomo’s actions aren’t in keeping with the overall CNN brand, no matter how much it has changed in recent years. That’s not a subject around which he or the network can avoid the chatter.