CNN has a Cuomo problem

CNN’s Chris Cuomo, left, and his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (AP Photo)
CNN has a Cuomo problem. It’s a problem CNN created, and a problem CNN now is taking plenty of heat over — for good reason.

Chris Cuomo is one of CNN’s stars, the host of his own prime-time show. His brother is Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York. Because of the obvious conflict of interest, CNN made sure that Chris never interviewed Andrew on his show. Seemed like a no-brainer decision and it was never really an issue, mostly because there was never a story so big involving Andrew that Chris’ national show absolutely had to address his brother in any way.

Then came COVID-19. With New York City at the epicenter of the coronavirus last year, Gov. Cuomo’s daily press conferences became must-see TV. Americans tuned in to gain a greater understanding of what was happening. CNN would carry the daily briefings live. Gov. Cuomo became a star. He was known for his transparency and straight talk about the virus, which was often in stark contrast to the briefings delivered by then President Donald Trump.

Then CNN crossed the line. The network allowed Gov. Cuomo to appear on Chris’ show. The segments with Chris and Andrew became wildly popular. They acted like brothers. They teased each other, jabbed each other, yukked it up. They talked about mom and growing up. In between their little comedy act, they did discuss the coronavirus. Audiences couldn’t get enough. Most embraced the respite from the constant grim news about COVID-19 and enjoyed the segments enough that far too many (including some media observers such as myself) overlooked the shady journalism ethics that were on display. But with Gov. Cuomo in good standing, it all seemed fairly harmless.

But now Gov. Cuomo is caught up in a blender of scandals. His administration is under federal investigation for its handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes. And three women, including two former aides, have come forward with accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct. There are calls for his resignation. When Chris Cuomo opened his show Monday night, he obviously had to address the elephant in the room — that his brother was facing serious allegations. He also said he could not talk about it, while assuring his audience that CNN would continue to report on the story.

Let’s be clear: Not covering this latest story is absolutely the correct thing for Chris Cuomo to do. It is a conflict of interest and he should not be reporting on it. But it’s still a bad look for CNN. It allowed Chris Cuomo to interview Gov. Cuomo when Gov. Cuomo looked good. But now that Gov. Cuomo is under fire, Chris Cuomo is saying nothing. It just reinforces that allowing Chris to interview Andrew early in the COVID-19 story was a rotten call.

Margaret Sullivan, the smart media columnist for The Washington Post, brings up a good point. Not everyone gave the Cuomos a pass when Andrew appeared on Chris’ show. When many were griping about The Cuomo Brothers Comedy Hour, Sullivan (and others) argued that Chris’ show wasn’t straight news. It was more of an opinion or entertainment show, kind of like Sean Hannity’s hour on Fox News, and therefore maybe shouldn’t be held to the same journalistic standards. But because we know now what we didn’t know then, it has become problematic.

We’re also looking back at Andrew’s appearances on Chris’ show in a different light. “It’s all just a little too convenient and slippery,” Sullivan writes. “One of Chris Cuomo’s defenses when he was criticized last spring was that his treatment of his brother wasn’t all fluff: He really did ask him newsy questions — like whether he might run for president.”

The problem isn’t now. It was then. Chris shouldn’t be covering his brother now. That is the right call. The mistake made was several months ago. As Sullivan writes, “CNN established a reasonable Cuomo-to-Cuomo policy back in 2013. It’s clear now, if it wasn’t fully clear before, that network brass should have resisted temptation and stuck with it.” CNN didn’t stick with it. As a result, its credibility is taking a hit.

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