December 2, 2013

On her blog, Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren absolved CNN host Chris Cuomo of all possible journalistic transgressions in interviewing his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, this morning regarding the New York City train derailment. No problem with a brother interviewing his brother about a key news event, rules Van Susteren:

I have no problem with Chris Cuomo interviewing his brother the NY Governor about the train crash. A conflict of interest is when some vital information is deliberately hidden from the viewer so that the viewer can’t make a decision himself/herself about the content of an interview and the potential for bias.

Whenever a Fox Newser rules one way about a matter of journalistic ethics, look for the truth in the opposite direction. After all, Fox News is the network that found no conflict with a host dedicating a fawning segment to a book written by her husband.

Some relevant facts regarding the Cuomo-on-Cuomo thing: On CNN’s “New Day” this morning, Chris Cuomo spent just north of six minutes interviewing brother-slash-governor Andrew Cuomo about the derailment of the commuter train that killed four people and injured dozens yesterday in the Bronx. Full disclosure took place: Chris Cuomo early in the interview noted that “we’re family,” for all those who might not have known. So CNN wasn’t trying to sneak anything past its viewers.

In dismissing any ethical concerns over the interview, Van Susteren has company in Mediaite and the Daily Beast, both of which downplayed gray-beareded concerns about the segment.

The field of journo-ethics, indeed, is a squishy and waterlogged expanse. Everything is up for debate and everyone is an expert on the topic. Prior to the Cuomo-on-Cuomo interview, however, the Erik Wemple Blog could have sworn there was an iron-clad consensus that journalists shouldn’t report on their family members.

In an e-mail to the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, Chris Cuomo declared in his defense, “Obviously I did the intv because it was non political, and frankly, I invite the criticism — because it exposes the hollowness of a lot of what is out there. Critics say my intv was no diff than any other and then criticize anyway.” A CNN source repeated the non-political theme to the Erik Wemple Blog.

There’s no such thing as a non-political interview with a sitting politician. It’s just impossible. Politicians often are defined by the way they address their constituents in times of crisis, whether it’s a train derailment, a hurricane or something even more horrible. Such events are more political than a campaign kickoff or sponsorship of a piece of legislation. Everyone at CNN knows that, too. As a matter of fact, a politician’s response to tragedy is often more politically charged than many other topics addressed by a cable-news network. So let’s just throw out that defense before trudging any further.

Watch the Cuomo-on-Cuomo interview. Yes, it’s informative. Yes, both fellows handle themselves quite well. Yes, the segment wouldn’t have generated any discussion if the last names hadn’t matched up. At the same time, it’s not hard to find spots where Chris Cuomo appears to place his thumb on the scale just a touch. In the first minute, Chris Cuomo observes how his brother “hurried down to the scene.” In the fifth minute, he repeated that pro-governor point: “When you went to the scene — you got there very quickly yesterday — what was it like?” In signing off, Chris Cuomo said, “It is no small irony that just in August, you were training with the National Guard for these types of situations. Who knew that just three months later, the training would have to be put into practice.”

To see how an interview with Gov. Cuomo might proceed at the hands of a non-family member, try this one by Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski. She doesn’t note that the governor made it to the scene quickly and pushes him about the trains’ maintenance (video below).

Chris Cuomo doesn’t host “New Day” all by himself. Is there any reason that co-host Kate Bolduan couldn’t have handled this interview? The Erik Wemple Blog posed that question to CNN and got this response from a network source: “Chris and the [executive producer] chose to do the interview. They wanted to do the interview,” says the source, who argued that it was a “straight-on interview” and didn’t implicate matters of journalistic ethics.

That would be true, if Chris Cuomo were utterly neutral on the topic of his brother.

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Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.