Correction to This Article
ยท An April 29 Style article misidentified the law school attended by ABC anchor Chris Cuomo. He is a graduate of the Fordham University School of Law, not Albany Law School.

A Son's Own Orbit

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

NEW YORK He had just finished chatting up Charlize Theron, but that wasn't Chris Cuomo's favorite part of "Good Morning America." It was the post-show ritual of schmoozing with audience members and posing for pictures.

"I feel a profound sense of responsibility," says Cuomo, his small Times Square office furnished with little more than a desk and a rack with 52 ties. "I don't want the job if I'm not contributing to this common cause of serving the audience. I wouldn't want the job just for the face time."

The cadence, infused with traces of his native Queens, is so familiar, so reminiscent of his father, the former governor of New York, and his brother, the state attorney general. Cuomo turned his back on the family business, opting instead for a television career that has landed him a coveted anchor slot on ABC's morning show. But when he talks about the craft, Cuomo sounds like a politician rhapsodizing about the importance of public service.

He didn't think much of the media growing up -- still doesn't, in some ways. "It's tough to like the people who seem to be going after your family," says Cuomo, 37. He recalls unfounded rumors that swirled around his father in 1992: " 'Why isn't he running for president?' 'Some say he's a Mafioso.' That's very, very hurtful to an Italian American. It's something I think about when I do my own labeling. . . . I think it helps make me a better journalist."

While the job description of news anchor calls for Cuomo to read the headlines and chat up hosts Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts, he has become the program's fireman -- racing off to the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the Virginia Tech shootings, the California wildfires. He has also indulged in occasional stunts, such as bungee-jumping off the roof of an Atlantic City casino and looking visibly uncomfortable doing it.

"This is a very competitive environment," Cuomo says. "You have to do things to create excitement in your audience." With 4.8 million viewers this season, "GMA" trails the perennial leader, NBC's "Today," by 900,000 viewers.

He is similarly unapologetic about diving into what has become a tabloid television staple, the three-year-old Natalee Holloway disappearance. "I don't believe it's my role to judge what people want to watch," Cuomo says. "If they say, 'I want to know what happened to this girl' . . . I want to help them find out."

He is disdainful of the media's sensationalism, pointing to the recent hype about the first "pregnant man." Of course, "GMA" did that story, too. Cuomo interviewed the transgendered man's attorney, but noted the case proved only that "a man can be pregnant when he's actually a woman, biologically."

That is the unresolved dilemma of Cuomo's career. He is different -- by background, by temperament, by plain-spoken manner -- than most of the anchor aspirants who've come up through the ranks of local television. But for all his earnestness, he has to fit into a morning-show medium that values glibness and faux intimacy as well as serious interviews. He accepts the inevitable compromises as the price for pursuing harder-edged stories that he admits are tougher to get on the air. And if that means taking a flying leap off a building, watch out below.

This gung-ho spirit appeals to ABC executives. "He's funny, he's passionate, he can get very intense," says Senior Executive Producer Jim Murphy. "Almost everyone else keeps part of themselves in a box when they perform on television."

But he can also stumble. In an international gaffe last month, Cuomo said that Britain's Prince Harry had been "over in Afghanistan fighting because he's expendable," and refused to back off after Roberts challenged him. London's Daily Mirror said Cuomo had "shocked millions of viewers with his outrageous claim that Harry went to Afghanistan because he is not next in line to the throne."

Cuomo says now he respects the prince and laments that "you only get one chance to say things on live TV."

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