Whatever embers of journalistic credibility that still smoldered for CNN anchor Chris Cuomo were extinguished by a giant fire hose on Monday when new documents revealed he’d misled viewers about working on behalf of his older brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, during the sexual harassment and groping scandal that ultimately led to the latter Cuomo’s resignation.
In August, on air, Chris Cuomo denied having been an “adviser” to his brother, asserting that he had merely given his sibling moral support and urged him to be contrite after a number of women accused him of misconduct. Documents released by the New York State attorney general’s office show, however, that Chris worked actively to find and share information about the accusations against his brother—and in one case passed on a rumor about one of the accusers—while also urging Andrew to claim in public that he was the victim of a political hit job.
What is CNN, long known as the United States’ premier defender of public interest integrity [sustained howls of laughter from audience], going to do about this situation? It should, and I do not encourage this course of action lightly, probably terminate his employment!
Even before the sexual harassment scandal unfolded, Chris Cuomo’s on-air treatment of his brother raised ethical questions. His frequent interviews with Andrew during the early months of the COVID crisis embodied the concept of a conflict of interest, given that Chris was less likely to ask his sibling potentially embarrassing or politically damaging questions than another journalist might have been. The pair also did some cutesy bits about being from an Italian American family that, in this critic’s opinion, were a bit much. But the world was in the midst of an apocalyptic event, and one could have argued that a temporary suspension of normal ethical rules was acceptable given the potential benefits of disseminating information and raising morale.
This February, however, the New York attorney general revealed that the Cuomo administration had manipulated statistics in order to hide the number of New York nursing home patients who had died of COVID. The dishonesty was almost certainly intended to prevent (Andrew) Cuomo from being further criticized for having initially ordered hospitals to send some still-recovering COVID patients back to nursing homes, and it was one of many ways in which his Competent COVID Governor image turned out to be a façade of bullshit. This made the idea of letting his brother puff him up on national TV even less savory, in retrospect.
But the questions about Chris Cuomo’s professional conduct only really began to snowball after several women who’d worked with or otherwise interacted with Andrew Cuomo made allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against the latter that ranged from the inappropriate to the potentially criminal. In May, the Washington Post reported that Chris Cuomo had joined “strategy” phone calls with his brother’s advisers in which they discussed how he should respond, something a CNN spokesperson described at the time as “inappropriate.” In August, the Post reported that the brothers had continued to speak about the issue, something Chris Cuomo then rationalized on-air by arguing that he had stopped participating in group calls and wasn’t acting as an “adviser” to his brother but instead simply lending him a friendly ear and urging him to follow the better angels of his nature:
And my advice to my brother was simple and consistent on what you did. Tell people what you’ll do to be better, be contrite, and finally accept that it doesn’t matter what you intended. What matters is how your actions and words were perceived.
Cuomo also said, in August, that he had “never attacked, nor encouraged anyone to attack any woman who came forward.”
The materials released by the New York attorney general, however—including texts and the transcript of a July interview—reveal that Chris Cuomo’s characterization of his own actions was not, uh, entirely forthright. CNBC was (I believe) the first to scour the new documents, and came away with the following revelations, among others:
• Chris Cuomo admitted to having contacted colleagues and peers in the media in efforts to find out advance details about potential accusations against his brother. “I would—when asked, I would reach out to sources, other journalists, to see if they had heard of anybody else coming out,” he told investigators.
• In early March 2021, Chris Cuomo texted a member of his brother’s political team that he had a “lead” on information about a woman who’d told the New York Times (with photo evidence) that Andrew Cuomo touched her bare back and face and told her he wanted to kiss her almost immediately after having met her at a wedding. Chris Cuomo told investigators he’d heard that the woman making the accusation may have been recently “put up to it,” only for his brother’s own notoriously ruthless and honesty-challenged advisers to inform him that the woman’s account, previously known to them via other channels, had remained consistent for some time.
• On March 12, 2021, after this and other misconduct allegations against his brother had been made public, Chris Cuomo drafted a full written statement for the then-governor, which described the accusations as “political warfare” and an example of “cancel culture.”
There are at least three things going on here that tend to destroy Chris Cuomo’s credibility as a news anchor. The first is that he was using his position as a journalist to attempt to feed information to the subject of a major ongoing news story. The second is that he was encouraging his brother’s administration to pursue baseless smears against other journalists and their sources. The third is that he was at least somewhat deceptive on air about the thrust of his advice, which does not at all seem to have been geared toward honesty or contrition.
Three big ethical problems is a lot of problems! In a Monday night statement, CNN said that it would give the new information about Chris Cuomo “thorough review and consideration.” But does it really need to be that thorough?
Update, November 30, 7:00 pm: After this post was published, CNN announced that it would suspend Cuomo indefinitely.