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In private conversations this week, CNN journalists expressed dismay to one another that the network has not disciplined Chris Cuomo for aiding his brother, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in response to sexual harassment allegations. New York AG Letitia James found on Tuesday Gov. Cuomo had sexually harassed 11 women.
CNN’s conundrum with Chris Cuomo could inspire an Apple TV+ series — it’s that complicated and troubling. The network’s top-rated host is the brother of the guy embroiled in the most newsworthy ongoing political scandal.
Media members on both the left and the right criticized Chris Cuomo Tuesday after he ignored the AG report on his primetime program. Instead, Cuomo opened his show with a scathing monologue on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic. Cuomo Prime Time was the only cable news program on Tuesday that didn’t cover James’ report.
In part, CNN made this matter worse last spring. See, in 2013, CNN put a clause in Chris Cuomo’s contract — a contract which he extended in April 2020 — that prohibits him from covering his brother on air. Yet, CNN lifted that restriction in spring 2020 to allow Gov. Cuomo to appear on his brother’s program during the pandemic.
“We felt that Chris speaking with his brother about the challenges of what millions of American families were struggling with was of significant human interest,” CNN said.
For several months last year, CNN allowed Chris Cuomo to humanize his brother, a politician, while the nation cheered the governor’s response to COVID. Sometime in the fall, CNN reinstated the rule and once again banned Chris Cuomo from covering or interviewing his brother.
“[The] rule remains in place today,” CNN said in February. CNN even floated the idea of a temporary leave for Chris Cuomo in order to avoid the appearance of journalistic impropriety, but he declined.
Now that the AG has issued an official report on the sexual harassment allegations, Chris Cuomo’s coverage of his brother is again a topic. Even though the ban forbidding Gov. Cuomo from appearing on Chris’ show had already been reinstated months ago, the narrative has already been written and reads: CNN banned Chris Cuomo from covering his brother after multiple women accused Andrew Cuomo of sexual misconduct.
So how does the network handle the matter moving forward?
Ideally for CNN, Andrew Cuomo would quietly run out the clock on his term as governor, and CNN can just pretend the whole Cuomo/Cuomo bit never happened.
At this moment, however, the quiet part is doubtful. President Joe Biden has since called for Gov. Cuomo to step down, signaling that Gov. Cuomo is now fair game for the rest of the Democrat Party.
Both Democrats and Republicans will now target Andrew Cuomo and keep his name in the news. And if the New York State Assembly impeaches Cuomo, his name will bolt to the top of the news cycle for an extended period of time. If it does, how could CNN continue to ignore the story at 9 pm? It likely couldn’t.
Media analyst Steve Krakauer argues that Chris Cuomo can and should cover his brother’s story with the proper disclosures. “It actually gives CNN a unique angle to the story,” Krakauer tweeted.
If lawmakers impeach Andrew Cuomo or the story unfolds further, CNN could revisit putting Chris Cuomo on leave — but this time telling him, not asking him. CNN could risk losing its locker room if it doesn’t, as ESPN did when it played favorites with select personalities.
This week also raised further questions about Chris Cuomo’s long-term future at CNN. The network has made Chris Cuomo one of the faces of CNN — along with Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, and Jake Tapper — but a star talent is only irreplaceable until their downside outweighs their upside. Some CNN employees have already turned on Cuomo, as have some former friendly media critics.
What’s more, Cuomo isn’t making the impact he did in 2020. Cuomo Prime Time averaged just 954,000 viewers in July 2021, less than half the viewership he had in July 2020. Cooper 360, Cuomo’s lead-in, averaged 947,000. Without Trump, Cuomo is merely holding CNN’s average base audience. Although no one else would likely do better than Chris Cuomo, they’d probably draw about the same viewership without the negative press.
Jake Tapper, the most powerful talent at CNN, has already publicly condemned Chris Cuomo for aiding his brother in the sexual harassment allegations.
“He put us in a bad spot,” Tapper said.
Though Cuomo deserves the criticism, it creates an uncomfortable atmosphere for Cuomo, Tapper, and CNN. And as digital media continues to close the gap with linear TV, Chris Cuomo himself could eventually prefer to depart from the network. He already hosts a daily SiriusXM show, which he could grow.
“The calls are getting louder and louder,” Don Lemon, Chris Cuomo’s colleague and off-air friend, opened his show Tuesday saying. Lemon was referring to calls from New York Democrats for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. Though not as widespread, the calls are just as loud for CNN to address the Chris Cuomo conundrum.