S1: Heads up, everyone, there is some grouchy journalist banter ahead with the occasional swear word thrown in. Since Chris Cuomo was put on indefinite leave from CNN, I’ve been looking back at his archive from the early days of the pandemic. Back then, with COVID spreading in New York, Chris had an inside source in state government. His brother, the governor, Andrew Cuomo.
S2: Now you know, I’ve seen you referred to a little bit recently as the love gov, and I’m wondering if that’s bleeding into your demeanor at all, making you all soft on the president.
S1: This is from back in April 2020. It’s an interview that is a weird marriage between news and pure silliness.
S2: I am the love gov. I’m a cool dude in a loose mood. You know that I just say, Let it go. Just go with the flow, baby. You know you can’t control. And he never said anything to water off a duck’s for the first time, you said. Yeah, I think I will. Yeah. Well, I never said anything. Look, I have I’ve known you my whole life. All right. Well, that’s your opinion. Yeah. Well, you should listen.
S1: I think of these interviews as belonging in the annals of weird things we thought made sense at the beginning of the pandemic. Like, we thought we should be wiping down our groceries, or we thought we needed to wear masks outdoors. And a lot of people thought it was OK for Chris Cuomo to interview his brother on TV. Erik Wemple from over at The Washington Post. He was never one of those people
S3: I certainly didn’t like. Cheer it on as many people did.
S1: So it’s kind of funny to look back on those videos.
S3: Now it is.
S1: They’re entertaining. It’s an entertaining conversation.
S2: I called mom just before I came on this show. By the way, she said I was her favorite. She never said Good news is, she said, you were her second favorite, second favorite son.
S3: The flip between personal discussion about mom and pop and then in very serious matters of public policy and New York state’s preparation for COVID,
S2: there’s only one of you right now. And if you get sick, it’s a problem. So I know you like to run around with your ill fitting jacket. But just remember that you got to stay healthy. I need your Big Brother because I love you and you’re the center of the family, but you’re the center of the state right now.
S1: Also, as someone who used to work in TV alongside Chris Cuomo. I get the appeal of these segments. Even Erik calls these conversations intoxicating, but they’re also ethically dubious. It’s hard to hold a powerful figure to account when that powerful figure is your Big Brother. Were you surprised that CNN let these conversations take place at all?
S3: Not really, simply because they have gotten, I think, increasingly desperate for any way to hang on in this ratings race. You know, if you deal with cable news, you know, that’s the way they keep score, and that’s about the only way they keep score.
S1: It was the only way they kept score until this week. That’s when text messages and transcripts got released by New York’s attorney general showing how after those chummy on air conversations, Chris ended up taking things one step further, advising the governor on how to respond to allegations that had fostered a toxic work environment and sexually harassed his employees. These are allegations that eventually led to the governor resigning. On Tuesday, CNN decided to suspend Chris indefinitely. Looking back now, these early brother to brother interviews to Erik Wemple, they seem to be where things started to go wrong for the younger Cuomo. They’re an initial ethical lapse that led to so many others. I wonder if you think if CNN had intervened earlier, been stronger about those ethical guidelines, where do you think things would have gone differently?
S3: I do think that if they had been stronger early on and sent that sort of message that Chris Cuomo probably would have thought twice about intervening in the way he did in his brother’s political pushback operation. These cable news people. I think that at some point it really dawns on them that they have a great degree of leverage and latitude and they can screw up, sometimes with with impunity.
S1: Today on the show, who’s to blame for the ethical breakdown at CNN and we’ll Andrew Cuomo bring his brother down with him. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what? Next? Stick around. The thing about those TV appearances between Chris and Andrew Cuomo at the beginning of the pandemic, they were always against the rules. CNN said so. They just made an exception. It didn’t hurt that this exception was pretty good for their bottom line, bringing in a massive audience to Chris Cuomo nine p.m. show. Eventually, Chris even showed up at one of his brother’s official press conferences, sporting a hat advertising Cuomo prime time.
S3: CNN was very much aggressive in seeking this sort of, I don’t know, co-branding, co-branding that they had going on there. You remember the suab incident and they were just going, you know, they would they would bounce back and forth between Andrew Cuomo’s press conferences and his appearances on CNN. And it was just the sort of self-reinforcing bubble that they had going on.
S1: You say the swab incident, we should explain it a little bit. This was an appearance on Chris Cuomo show. His brother, the governor, was there and at some point Chris brought out this giant prop Q-Tip and made a joke that like this is what would have to go up your nose.
S3: Right, exactly.
S2: All right, here’s this up. Is it true that this was this swab that the nurse was actually using on? You see, I said I was going to be nice and sweet. I just wanted your snow and ice. It Chris. I was trying. Or was it this hard look? Which was it?
S1: I mean, it got attention because it was so goofy in the middle of a crisis.
S3: It was goofy in the middle of a crisis. It was also part of this chemistry and the sort of eccentricities and between these brothers. And it was also sort of theatrical. And it was also widely panned by Chris, Cuomo and CNN’s critics, the right wing fed off of of this moment. And I think, quite frankly, in retrospect, that was pretty well done. You know, satire and I’m sure that again, I can’t imagine any politician that looks back fondly on those moments.
S1: Yeah, I mean, at the time. Ben Smith, writing in The New York Times, implied that the relationship between the Cuomo brothers was almost a model like it fostered trust in journalism, and maybe it was a kind of future. And it’s interesting to look back on that kind of assessment now, because I can see why you would say that,
S3: because it’s bullshit. You know, it was just embarrassing.
S1: The conflict of interest here became more apparent as Andrew Cuomo scandals came to light. First, a controversy over the governor undercounting COVID deaths in nursing homes and then a budding investigation into allegations of sexual harassment. This time, the Cuomo Buddy Act was nowhere to be seen,
S3: but became glaringly obvious. OK, so here he was, covering his brother in the most direct way possible, namely via one on one interviews during the early pandemic. And now things were getting dicey and Chris Cuomo was having nothing to say about it. So I started writing about that, that silence. And I think then in March, maybe March 1st, Chris Cuomo came on the air and said, You know, I don’t think I don’t see what’s going on with my brother.
S2: Obviously, I’m aware of what’s going on with my brother, and obviously I cannot cover it because he is my brother. Now, of course, CNN has to cover it. They have covered it extensively and they will continue to do so.
S3: I’m sorry, and that’s what I have to say about that, and they’ve moved on.
S1: Now a charitable interpretation of that is that this is Chris, Cuomo and CNN tapping the brakes. Maybe the way they should have months before, but they were at least tapping them. How do you see it?
S3: I mean, I see it just clearly, I think there’s a double standard, right? Things are going well for Governor Cuomo in early 2020, so we interview him and celebrate him. Things are going poorly for Governor Cuomo. We don’t have anything to do with that. And so it’s a double standard. I mean, charitably, you know, tapping the brakes, I suppose, you know, it is true that other parts of CNN were covering these other things. So it’s not a problem on every hour of CNN, but Chris Cuomo being the 9:00 p.m. anchor, that’s a pretty much off the table setting position for the network. It’s a really important consideration. You know, Dan Abrams, he is a long time lawyer and commentator, legal commentator. I was on with him on those days and he was saying, Well, no one really interpreted or experience those early interviews in the spring of 2020 as Chris Cuomo quote unquote covering his brother. They saw it as a talk show. They saw it as something entertaining and a nice distraction. And I said, Well, that’s fine. You can have that interpretation, but it’s still, says CNN, which means cable news network on the screen. And as long as you’re coming out and saying that you’re a news network, you don’t have that out. Hmm. You know what I mean? So if your news, if you’re saying your news, you’re saying you’re producing journalism, and if you want to get on the air and say, no, this is no longer journalism, this is just entertainment, then you can go ahead and do that. But I would bet that if you ask CNN whether those segments qualifies as news, they would tell you we produce news 24-7. So that’s in the sense that I believe that CNN wouldn’t even make for itself.
S1: What happened this week is that the attorney general of New York released this trove of documents showing just how closely Chris Cuomo and his brother, the then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, were working together as the governor’s administration became embroiled in scandal. So while there was this on air silence, we now know that there was anything but silence behind the scenes. Can you explain what you found in these documents? Because there’s 300 pages of them? What stood out to you?
S3: So the way I break it down, sort of like after spending a lot of time in these pages, is that Chris Cuomo really wanted to help his brother. His whole thing was trying to get the aides for his brother to to face up to whatever truth there was. I think that on some level, on this basic level, Chris Cuomo was acting as kind of an agent of good in a way you would want a journalist to influence politics. You know, if journalists were going to become political consultants, this is sort of the advice you want them to give, which is, you know, tell the truth, face up to the facts that other people can interpret your actions differently than you may have attended them and you’re responsible for that. Don’t run, come out and make amends and apologize. So, you know, I think morally and ethically, those are those are really strong guidelines that he urged upon these people. So he for for several weeks or whatever in these text messages, he was pushing the top aide to Governor Cuomo, Melissa DeRosa, Democratic operative, very sharp and very obviously involved in the weeds and all of this stuff through their text message where he’s saying, Please keep me in the loop. You know, I feel that we’re not being listened enough and he’s taking of other people that he thinks should be giving their input. He also reports back about his efforts to check on the status of other publications stories on the governor.
S1: He’s using his media contacts to figure out what’s going on.
S3: But he’s using journalists to figure out what’s happening. I should also point out that according to my reporting to a lot of the journalists were contacting him proactively, because if you’re going to do a story on Andrew Cuomo, you’re probably going to call Chris as a source right to figure out he might know something so that that particular road was a two way road. All he had to do was basically wake up and answer his phone. He was talking to journalists about what was coming down the pike. That’s not a defense of that. That’s just saying what happened, I believe. So he was constantly or very intensively working with the executive chamber of Governor Cuomo in an effort to push back against the sort of the accruing allegations of sexual misconduct. He was advocating for them to advocate for his brother in a way that he felt would protect his brother and also serve the interests of truth. As I said, he was trying to do some political intelligence trying to find out what various when various organizations. We’re publishing something he also on a couple of occasions, it appears, was he once reported to Melissa DeRosa that he had quote unquote a lead about the wedding girl?
S1: This is the girl that the governor hugged without her permission, and there are pictures of it, right?
S3: He put his hand on her exposed back, which I think is also, you know, that’s problematic that she reported that that was improper touching. So what happened there was Chris Cuomo reported to Melissa DeRosa that he had a lead on the wedding girl, so he looked into it. Apparently, what he found, according to his testimony, was that this woman anarock her testimony was consistent from start to finish. And so, he said, told the investigators, So that’s that. You got to wonder what would have happened if he had found some other situation that whether he would have set out to discredit her? I don’t know. But what is clear is that he was doing that sort of work.
S1: I mean, you say that in some ways, what? Chris Cuomo is doing is like what you would want an ethical person to do in this circumstance. Advocating for the truth but wasn’t he also suggesting? Language that was pretty bitter for his brother to use like to blame what was happening to him with these allegations on cancel culture.
S3: Right? This is a story of many prongs. What I’m gathering from my reporting is there was a feeling within the executive chamber that some of these complaints were less worthy than others and that they didn’t think that all of them were were substantive enough to put the governor in political peril. If you understand what I’m saying. I think that that’s what they were referring to was the cancel culture. But I don’t have that on the record. It just seems that’s what I can gather from, from sort of going, sifting through everything, talking to people and so on and so forth. And that does troubled me, too, like the cancel culture.
S1: It’s a talking point.
S3: It’s a talking point. And I think it’s a poor one. It’s a ham handed one. It’s a blunt instrument. And, you know, it’s basically bullshit, right? I mean, like if you have credible sexual harassment allegations against you, that’s not cancel culture simply is not. And he was also, as the Post reported in May, he was also very defiant and counseling for no resign, no resigned to not resign. So that was also a prong of his input.
S1: The way that Chris Cuomo has characterized his behavior is, he said. I’m not an adviser, I’m a brother, and I never attacked or encouraged anyone to attack any woman who came forward. It sounds like in some ways you might think. That’s true.
S3: Oh, no, I think that once you once you start having calls with the executive chamber now, he didn’t participate in all of them. And if you look through the transcripts, according to one of the PR people in the shop, Chris may have participated in one fifth, maybe one sixth of the calls, he said. If there were 25 calls, Christmas participated in five to seven or six of them. But he clearly, by what he was doing, had moved from his capacity as brother, as journalist, into a political consultant and a political adviser and a political operative. I mean, look, this is very clear. The sort of stuff that that the texts portray him as having done is stuff that a political consultant would do or a political operative would do. I don’t think there’s a lot of ambiguity about that. I think that he that is spin on his part, that he was a brother and not a political adviser. I’m sure that that’s the way he felt about it. But the core activities that he was doing? That’s political. Yeah. You know what I’m saying? I think that that is that there can’t be any wiggle room on that. I what what I’m working on now is OK. So he did all this stuff. How effective was he? And it’s apparent from the transcripts and just other conversations I’ve been having that he wasn’t very effective at all,
S1: like he wasn’t getting through to the advisers.
S3: Yeah. Well, he was trying to bang on them. And even in his testimony, he talks about how he starts getting sidelined and he didn’t feel like he he was. He was he was being that his input was being really valued or considered. Now that could have been performative, that could have been, you know, spin in the in the interrogation session. But if you look at how Melissa Roza answers the questions relating to Chris Cuomo, she sounds like, you know, I was getting I was getting stuff from everybody. And this part about where he says I have a lead on Anna Rook. If I recall her testimony correctly, she was like she didn’t engage with that particular offering by Chris Cuomo because she wasn’t really too worried about the wedding situation. She was worried because this that wasn’t really a workplace thing. And so Chris Cuomo offering, you know, some degree of intelligence about on a rook apparently was not of great interest, at least to Melissa DeRosa, if I’m reading the transcript properly.
S1: To Erik, this irony is key that while Chris Cuomo is advice to his brother clearly breached an ethical line, putting his career and credibility at risk, it wasn’t actually of much consequence to the elder Cuomo was damage control strategy. Chris himself seemed to recognize that in his testimony to the attorney general at one point, he says his number one concern was protecting his family. Erik says Chris is impulse to help family, it’s understandable. It just doesn’t excuse the way he went about it.
S3: I kind of wish that he had just taken a leave of absence or something, you know, so that he could he could do do all this. But there’s another point in the testimony where he sort of acknowledges that he’s no way Chris Cuomo is not in there saying he’s providing all this value added either. He’s not saying that he has all these contacts and you can, you know, he’s better at this than the people who were employed in the executive chamber. He was just saying he was trying to get make sure that the chamber was putting out the right sort of message for his brother. And that could be spent, too. You called me earlier saying, you know, I gave an incomplete account of of, you know, of his sort of input and you write about that and I’m glad you did. But you know, you sort of feel for him when he talks about, you know, the limitations of the advice that he was he was giving because these people were experienced political operatives, which makes it even even a little more tragic. It’s like, OK, you put your you put your career on the line for what?
S1: When we come back, what responsibility to CNN bear? You’ve said how Chris an Andrew Cuomo and their shtick was good for CNN’s bottom line. I read that Chris Cuomo ratings doubled when he did those appearances with his brother. I wonder if you can talk a little bit now that he’s on this indefinite suspension? What does that mean for the network?
S3: That’s a good question. The way I put it would be this CNN is a real sort of opportunistic network. They jump on any major news story and they just crank it. So when those stories are roaring, it doesn’t matter who’s anchoring. CNN will get its viewers because it has this enormous reach. It has 3000 journalists as so many bureaus. They have resources that other networks don’t have. But when the news isn’t roaring, OK, those personalities at night Matt or Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, they have to put some spin on it. They have to have some special sauce. And that’s Chris Cuomo. And his shtick, you know, stick at night is like a mister, you know, righteousness. And I give it to straight and let’s, let’s get after it. And he has all these sticky things that very much his interviews with Andrew Cuomo played into.
S1: And we’re in a moment now where the news post-Trump is having a dip.
S3: Yes, yes. So they need those personalities. They need Chris Cuomo. And that’s why I think up to this point, they have been loath to sanction him or take any sort of disciplinary action over this whole thing.
S1: You’ve also said that 100 percent of Chris Cuomo misdeeds are now also the misdeeds of Jeff Zucker, CNN’s president. Can you explain why you said that?
S3: So it was me when, as I said before, the Post reported that Chris had participated in these strategy sessions. In other words, that he had not just counseled his brother on a one to one basis, which I think a lot of people would give him a pass for, but that he had participated as in the role of sort of a moonlighting political consultant. CNN had this information in May in August. And my point is that they can’t claim to be blindsided in late November. Right. Because they knew the Chris had done some work with with the executive chamber to to help his brother and to save his reputation, save his political career.
S1: Yeah, it’s funny because if you look at CNN statement. After they suspended Chris Cuomo, it does feel like they’re trying to claim that they were blindsided, you know? They claim that the documents somehow reveal something they didn’t they didn’t know before. Do you think that’s bullshit?
S3: I think the statement line by line, word by word is accurate and true. But I think it’s also the implication isn’t quite accurate if you understand what I’m saying. The implication is that they couldn’t have known.
S1: The reality is that they didn’t try.
S3: That’s my point. Hundred percent Mary. You nailed it. The thing is that they knew in May and they knew in August that there was a role that Chris played. Now how would an organization figure out how its employee, how deeply involved its employee was in something? Ask him, you know, he’s their employee. Like, they have leverage over this person, you know? So you sit Chris down and you said, How long did you talk to the investigators? And he says, Oh, I talked to them for hours on July 15th. OK, I want you right now to sit here and give me a two hour summary of everything they asked you and everything you respond. And as much as I say about a huge Chris Cuomo, I think he will faithfully gone through that. And it would have been his obligation to. And that’s what a good journalistic employer does.
S1: I just think it’s interesting because it’s really easy to talk about this in terms of the personalities we’re familiar with. Chris, Cuomo, Andrew, Cuomo and you seem to be saying in some ways like the real problem was that no one managed this dude.
S3: Yeah, I think that’s right. And, you know, I pointedly stayed away from saying, you know, especially in the headline, you know, Chris Cuomo must. And I do think that the the bigger point here, you know, everybody’s been talking about what’s the appropriate punishment and so on and so forth. And my view is that the appropriate punishment is sort of a secondary question. The appropriate behavior for the company is to figure everything out and then publish what they found. And so there needs to be, in my view, a CNN investigation of how he may or may not have betrayed the trust of CNN, his colleagues and the viewers. CNN doesn’t seem to be going far enough as far as to commit to that investigation if you read their statements carefully. They stopped short of using the term investigation, right? They say a review evaluation, you know, on Monday, they said, will do a thorough review or something like that. And they said they’re suspending him pending further evaluation. But they haven’t said an investigation
S1: or like what that evaluation is.
S3: Right? So I mean, that is, you know, it’s very much up in the air. I don’t know whether what they’re going to do. But I think that’s the sort of conduct that we need to see from CNN.
S1: So where’s Chris Cuomo in five years? Syndicated talk show?
S3: Well, you know, I don’t know that is necessarily going to be like, go ultimately from CNN. I mean, they said indefinite suspension pending further evaluation. He’s not gone yet. But you know, there’s there’s News Nation. There’s a lot of you know, Megan Kelly came off of Fox to NBC News, and now she’s got a pretty thriving podcast and show on Sirius XM. There’s just so many places where you can land in the media these days, and after you’ve built up an audience that’s in the high, hundreds of thousands of millions like Chris Cuomo is done. There’s a carryover he will be fine.
S1: Erik Wemple, I’m so grateful for this conversation.
S3: Well, thanks for having me on your questions and your obsessions are wonderful.
S1: Erik Wemple is a media critic for The Washington Post. Before I get out of here, if you have been following the arguments about abortion at the Supreme Court and want to hear some of the best analysis around, make sure you go over to amicus and hit subscribe. That is Dahlia Lithwick Show. She’s about to drop a new episode in the next little bit. You will not want to miss it. OK, that is our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Alan Schwarz, Mary Wilson and Danielle Hewitt. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Go track me down on Twitter. Say Hi, I’m Matt Mary’s desk, and thanks for listening. I will be back here on Monday.