Fresh off celebrating his 51st birthday, Chris Cuomo is scheduled to return from a week-long vacation and host his prime-time CNN show on Monday night, just as he has for the past three years.
But Cuomo’s world has changed since he went on vacation.
His older brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, announced his resignation Tuesday in the wake of a state investigation that concluded he sexually harassed 11 women. The younger Cuomo – who interviewed his brother six times last year and called him “the best politician in the country” – has since been instructed by CNN not to discuss what may be the biggest political scandal in the country right now. Chris Cuomo’s critics wonder if his relationship with his brother has undermined his objectivity as a journalist in a way that will color the perception of him going forward.
Cuomo is a garrulous and lively host, with energy running over, but part of his TV appeal has always been rooted in his membership in a political dynasty – like the late Sen. John McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain, who recently stepped down as co-host of “The View.” He is not only the brother of a New York governor, but the son of one, too – Mario Cuomo, who died several years ago.
“Son of Cuomo, brother of Cuomo,” as the host put it in a 2019 interview, speaking in third person to mock the media’s interest in him. “He’s in the middle. Nobody really wants to own him. He’s kind of an outsider, but he’s an insider.”
But the Cuomo family legacy, once etched proudly into the history of the Democratic Party, is now tainted.
As Andrew Cuomo battled for his political life against sexual harassment allegations this spring, The Washington Post broke news that Chris Cuomo had violated CNN’s rules and taken part in strategy sessions with the governor’s top aides.
In response to that story, CNN said it was “inappropriate” for Cuomo to participate in “official” strategy sessions with the governor’s staff and barred him from doing so again, but allowed him to continue advising his brother informally.
According to The Post’s reporting, Cuomo had encouraged his brother to “take a defiant position and not to resign from the governor’s office.” His stance contradicted not only the prevailing progressive sentiment in the cable news industry, which has ousted several male TV hosts accused of sexual misconduct in the past few years. It also contradicted Chris Cuomo’s own supportive comments about the #MeToo movement.
Cuomo’s advice to his brother appears to have shifted since then. In the week before Tuesday’s resignation announcement, Chris encouraged Andrew to resign, a source with knowledge of their conversations told The Post.
The notion that Chris had landed on the right side of the story and encouraged his brother to step down could make his return to the network more palatable, publicly. There are signs that the host’s reputation has already taken a hit, however.
According to Nielsen Media Research data, Cuomo lost a chunk of his female viewership last week, after New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced her findings. “Cuomo Prime Time” averaged 453,000 total female viewers per show for the rest of that week, a 21% decline from the 570,000 he averaged in the months of April, May and June. (“Cuomo Prime Time” was guest hosted on Friday night by Michael Smerconish, which might have affected the ratings.)
Cuomo and his network have also been hampered by accusations of a double standard. After years of barring him from doing so, CNN allowed Cuomo to interview his brother multiple times last year, when the governor was being widely praised for managing New York’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. But a few months after harassment accusations against Andrew Cuomo began trickling out in December 2020, Chris Cuomo told viewers that he could not cover them because of the conflict of interest inherent in interviewing a close family member. The host did not discuss the attorney general’s findings last week, telling viewers that his show would instead focus on the surge in coronavirus cases.
Some of his audience noticed. The late-night host Stephen Colbert called it “an odd conflict of rules” on his show Tuesday, and pressed his guest – CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter – for an explanation.
“If we open up the journalism ethics book, there’s no page for this,” Stelter told Colbert. “It’s the craziest set of circumstances you can imagine.”
But CNN has an internal rule book that addresses such conflicts of interest. In fact, network president Jeff Zucker sent an all-employee email on Tuesday morning, a few hours before Cuomo’s resignation, urging them to reread the company’s News Standards & Practices Policy Guide.
“CNN is the most trusted name in news, thanks to each of you,” Zucker wrote. “And in order to keep it that way, everyone needs to know and follow our practices and standards in everything we do.”
According to a copy obtained by The Post, the document mandates that “CNN employees should avoid any real obligation or appearance of any obligation to any interest that he/she may be covering or reporting on,” and “should avoid conflicts between personal interests and the interest of the company or even the appearance of such conflicts.”
“It’s actually not complicated at all,” said Soledad O’Brien, a journalist who worked at CNN for a decade and now runs a production company. “People are willing to twist themselves into these gymnastics to make it sound complex when actually it’s not complex at all. It’s pretty clear what the ethics were that were violated, and it’s pretty clear that nobody has any intention of holding [Cuomo] accountable at this point.”
In choosing to keep Cuomo on the air throughout the backlash he and CNN have faced, however, network management has signaled confidence in the host.
While some CNN employees have been bothered by Cuomo’s working relationship with his brother – anchor Jake Tapper said in May that he put his colleagues “in a bad spot” – he remains a broadly popular figure at the company, known for his intense loyalty to the network, its employees and their families.
“Chris is really well-liked, from field crews to management, so unless something new comes out, I can’t imagine he won’t weather this,” said a veteran producer at the network who was not authorized to comment publicly. But, the person acknowledged, “Chris and Zucker are in a tough spot.”
O’Brien said she’s talked to a lot of “disappointed” former colleagues at CNN. “I truly believe it’s always damaging to morale when leadership doesn’t do the right thing,” she added.
While still on vacation Tuesday, Chris Cuomo told a Fox News reporter who had waited for him at the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard on Long Island that he had, “of course,” spoken with his brother.
Beyond that, he’s been quiet. He has not yet commented publicly on his brother’s resignation, and it’s not known whether he will do so on his first show back from vacation, Monday at 9 p.m.
Some feel he should.
“Chris could make a statement that his part in this saga has been adjudicated by CNN already and that outcome had nothing to do with the results or the substance of his brother’s guilt or innocence,” said a media executive who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a sensitive situation. “He could hit that hard and say, you know, ‘We move on. Case closed. New chapter. Move forward.’ And he could hope, and CNN could hope, that the story then just sort of goes away.”
Robert Yoon, a University of Michigan lecturer on journalism and politics who spent 18 years at CNN before leaving in 2017 as the network’s director of political research, guessed that Cuomo’s viewers might give him a second chance, just as CNN’s management has.
“If [viewers] feel that a cable news personality is on their side, so to speak, they’re willing to find reasons to excuse their behavior,” he said. “If people like Chris Cuomo’s approach to the news and his take on things, they’ll continue to find a way to support him.”