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Gov. Cuomo may be exiting, but ethical concerns still swirl around Chris Cuomo, CNN

The spotlight on Chris Cuomo comes at a potential moment of transition for CNN and other major cable news outlets.
Chris Cuomo speaks during the Turner Upfront 2017 show in New York on May 17, 2017.
Chris Cuomo speaks during the Turner Upfront 2017 show in New York on May 17, 2017.Mike Coppola / Getty Images for Turner

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation this week upended the political career of a Democratic scion who once towered over the state. But the scrutiny on his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, continues to rivet people in the overlapping worlds of media and politics, raising questions about ethical considerations inside the cable network and the public reputation of one of the key brands in American television.

Chris Cuomo, the host of CNN’s 9 p.m. show "Cuomo Prime Time," came under a microscope last week after New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a scathing report on sexual misconduct allegations against the governor. Andrew Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing.

The report detailed how the broadcaster was involved in managing the response to the scandal — a dynamic that media experts suggest was a journalistic conflict of interest that many in the profession would consider inappropriate.

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, wrote this week that Chris Cuomo’s role as an informal adviser to his powerful brother was "deplorable."

"He has put brotherly love ahead of journalistic propriety," she wrote in a column published Monday, a day before Andrew Cuomo announced he would step down. "[T]he network’s leadership has let him get away with it."

Chris Cuomo was part of the governor’s inner circle while, in late February, he helped devise media talking points and strategies Andrew Cuomo could use to respond to the multiple accusations of sexual harassment, according to emails and text messages made public last Tuesday by investigators for James.

Erik Wemple, the Post’s media critic, lambasted Chris Cuomo’s "line-crossing behavior" in a column, also published Monday, headlined "CNN must investigate Chris Cuomo."

When reached for comment, CNN spokesman Matt Dornic pointed NBC News to one of its previous statements.

"Chris has not been involved in CNN’s extensive coverage of the allegations against Governor Cuomo — on air or behind the scenes," the company has said. "In part because, as he has said on his show, he could never be objective.

"But also because he often serves as a sounding board for his brother. However, 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."

The spotlight on Chris Cuomo comes at a potential moment of transition for CNN and other major cable news outlets, including MSNBC, which is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News. CNN, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, aggressively raised its profile over the last five years with wall-to-wall coverage of the Trump administration, the 2020 presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic.

CNN has become virtually synonymous with "the mainstream media" frequently deplored by supporters of former President Donald Trump, and the company remains an outsize target for conservative critics, as well as a focal point in the debate over the role of the modern media.

The network is by no means the first news organization to draw criticism over alleged improprieties — NBC News, for its part, has found itself embroiled in various scandals in the last decade — but few have centered on a marquee TV personality who had such close ties to one of the most prominent Democratic politicians in the country.

Samuel Freedman, a professor at Columbia Journalism School who specializes in ethics, said he views Chris Cuomo’s actions as a "blatant conflict of interest." (Freedman, a former reporter for The New York Times, disclosed that he has contributed articles to CNN’s website on a freelance basis, but he said he has no ongoing professional relationship with the network.)

He said that total candor with CNN executives is crucial. If the news anchor told his bosses he was giving advice to the governor, he said, the network should have put him on a paid leave of absence "for the duration of this issue."

The New York Times, citing two anonymous sources, reported last Wednesday that, earlier this year, CNN executives told Chris Cuomo that if he wanted to advise his brother he could take a temporary leave from the network. The Times reported that the proposal was informal and optional — not a direct request.

Freedman said that while the scandal at the top of New York state government dominated national headlines, the network should have also considered temporarily re-assigning Chris Cuomo to a different subject — entertainment or business coverage, for example — that did not necessarily "overlap so much" with political news involving his brother.

In May, Chris Cuomo admitted that he had "inappropriate" strategy conversations with his older brother. He promised to steer clear of the network’s coverage of his brother.

Freedman said even the public perception of a conflict of interest is "corrosive to a news organization’s credibility."

He noted that many "news organizations have survived worse scandals than this," but he said the issue could "undermine" the network’s own reporters who have covered Andrew Cuomo.

The scrutiny on Chris Cuomo also arrives during a period of cultural upheaval at many American newsrooms and media companies as some employees — especially younger and more diverse staffers reared on the democratic energy of the internet — demand greater accountability for executives and on-air personalities who they believe escape consequences for ethical lapses or other problematic behavior in the workplace.

At the same time, media industry insiders are speculating on the future of CNN chief Jeff Zucker, a veteran media executive who, sources previously said, could take on an even larger corporate role after WarnerMedia and Discovery are formally merged. (Zucker was once the CEO of NBCUniversal.)

CNN apparently has not disciplined Chris Cuomo — a decision that one employee said she found particularly galling.

"There is no reprimanding, right? He didn’t even get the ‘slap-on-the wrist, one-week suspension’ that we see elsewhere when a journalist makes a mistake," said the employee, a writer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The employee said she was also troubled by the network’s decision to bring back Jeffrey Toobin, the legal analyst and author who was suspended by CNN and fired by The New Yorker after he was seen exposing himself during a video conference meeting in October. (Toobin, in an on-air appearance in June, described himself as a "flawed human being who makes mistakes" and said his conduct was "deeply moronic and indefensible.")

"I guess one way to put it is that it’s been really hard to be a woman at CNN, because you see these decisions and you’re seeing them prioritize and defend men," the writer said, later adding: "It just seems to create that culture of: Why are you defending and protecting these people who don’t need to be defended and protected?"

Matthew Sheffield, a creator of conservative news websites who has since become a critic of that media ecosystem, said he expected that many partisan warriors aligned with Trump would probably see Chris Cuomo’s actions as yet more reason to malign a network many of them view as hypocritical "fake news."

But he added that many of those critics could also be accused of hypocrisy given the various ethical issues — including conflicts of interest — inside right-leaning television channels and digital outlets. (Chris Cuomo’s situation has been the subject of multiple articles on Fox News’ website.)

"They do not operate in good faith," Sheffield said. "They all do the exact same things and, in fact, much worse. Fox News has no credibility to talk about any of this stuff."