Cuomo Scandal Puts CNN to the Test

Cuomo Scandal Puts CNN the Test
Photo illustration VIP+; Adobe Stock; AP Photo

In another year or on another network, Chris Cuomo’s career would be toast right now.

The allegations that came to light from the New York attorney general’s office earlier this week about how the cable anchor conducted himself on behalf of his brother, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, are appalling, and he’s not denying them.

But this is CNN circa 2021, a post-Trump era in which the conventional wisdom about controversy and reputational damage no longer applies. And not only does WarnerMedia’s 24-hour-news brand need its top attraction in primetime to stay in the game, but Cuomo has the ability to survive his scandal — if CNN plays its cards right.

Crisis consultants on retainer at WarnerMedia certainly have their work cut out for them: Cuomo appears to have understated the level of involvement he had in helping his beleaguered brother’s futile attempt to avoid a political implosion. Though he publicly copped to aiding Andrew Cuomo’s campaign, the details that have emerged from state investigators paint a much uglier picture, one of a supposedly impartial journalist in close cahoots with the governor’s aides — to the point where he was working other journalists to find out what dirt they had on his brother.

Give credit to CNN for moving fast to react: The network said it would investigate further as soon as the NY AG disclosure hit, then suspended Cuomo indefinitely the next day. Now the question looms as to when — or if — Cuomo will be back in a CNN anchor chair.

The prospect that CNN could go without Cuomo or lose him permanently has got to be scaring everyone from the network’s top executive, Jeff Zucker, to Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who will add CNN to his portfolio when his company completes its acquisition of WarnerMedia next year.

“Cuomo Prime Time” is CNN’s highest-rated program, averaging 791,000 total viewers per episode in November. With all of cable news unable to milk Donald Trump for ratings anymore, holding onto top talent is more important than ever.

Of course, keeping Cuomo doesn't help matters if he's permanently tarnished. It's not so much the utter recklessness with which the anchor operated on behalf of his brother that is so damaging as it is the way his actions confirm people's worst suspicions about top-tier journalists. Conspiring with the governor fits the stereotype of the clubby elitist who doesn't let impartiality get in the way of protecting his associates.

Think back to the thick of the pandemic, when Chris Cuomo would interview his brother — then at the height of his career — and everyone got a kick out of their familial banter. In retrospect, the nepotism on display was more than a little sickening.

So if CNN doesn't deal with Cuomo appropriately, there are a thousand vultures at Fox News and beyond who are ready to sink their sharpened talons into the network. A light slap on the wrist simply can't happen.

Because of Cuomo's value, CNN will have to exhaust every avenue before pink-slipping him. While in the heat of the moment it might seem like the network has no choice but to part ways, consider that there are more than a few TV personalities currently working who weathered tough scandals only to re-emerge after sitting on the sidelines for an extended period.

Look at the example of Brian Williams, whose lies arguably put him in a worse pickle than the one in which Cuomo finds himself. It seemed that Williams' goose was cooked at the time, but then-NBC News chief Andrew Lack essentially benched and demoted him and he was able to make a comeback. Even at CNN itself, few probably thought Jeffrey Toobin would survive his misadventures on Zoom last year, but lo and behold, he returned after an eight-month respite.

Having Cuomo ride the pine for a time may not be all he needs to do to get past his controversy; he'll have to address his misdeeds with candor and contrition. But if you've ever seen Cuomo in front of a camera, it's clear he'll be able to pull this off handily. He emotes like no one else in TV news.

Cuomo has a chance to save his hide here. In his comments to date on his predicament, he has savvily positioned himself as just a regular guy looking out for a close family member. This average-Joe sensibility has always been part of the persona Cuomo has expertly projected both on air and off. Who could forget the violent verbal bluster he expressed in 2019 when caught on a mobile-phone camera.

Strange as it seemed to hear an impeccably groomed scion of a political dynasty talk like a longshoreman who'd had one too many, it was oddly endearing: This guy is ready to throw hands if you cross him! He's just like us!

What must worry Zucker most is that cutting ties with Cuomo will almost certainly send the anchor over to rival MSNBC, which is in dire need of new star talent having just lost Brian Williams and soon getting less out of Rachel Maddow. New MSNBC chief Rashida Jones may not be able to afford the luxury of having any ethical hang-ups about employing Cuomo.

For Zucker, the calculus on what to do with Cuomo must also play into his own uncertain future at CNN. It's hard to believe he will be content to simply stay in the same job once the Discovery era begins and his good friend Zaslav takes the throne. Surely, Zaslav has a bigger portfolio in mind for Zucker, who next year can hand off his Cuomo headache to someone else.

The only way this could get worse — and yes, don't forget that as bad as it looks now, it could get worse — is if new allegations come to light that show Cuomo clearly influenced CNN's own handling of the story. Should something of that nature emerge, it's lights out for Cuomo at CNN, and CNN itself would be in hot water.

From Zaslav on down, all involved better pray nothing like that happens.