Last semester, I taught a Duke University course somewhat dramatically titled “The News as a Moral Battleground.” Every Monday, we used the headlines of the day to talk about problems of journalism ethics; there was never a shortage of material.
We’d start with the admirable journalism at the Albany Times Union, the newspaper in New York’s capital, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s political career is in flames following the state attorney general’s scathing report; it detailed credible sexual-harassment charges by a growing number of women, some on the state payroll.
And then we’d look — askance — at the deplorable behavior at CNN, where the governor’s brother, Chris Cuomo, is a popular host who has put brotherly love ahead of journalistic propriety. And where the network’s leadership has let him get away with it.
The lessons? One of them is clearly this: National prominence and media-outlet size have exactly zero to do with ethical behavior.
Here’s what the Times Union — ably led by top editor Casey Seiler — has done over the past weeks and months: Broken a lot of Cuomo-related stories. Maintained proper journalistic distance from sources, even when there was a price to pay in terms of access. Refused off-the-record information. Served the public interest.
Here’s what CNN’s Chris Cuomo has done over the past weeks and months: failed to maintain the most basic of journalistic principles, which are independence, fairness and impartiality.
The attorney general’s report makes reference to him as one of his brother’s advisers and states that he may have even helped the governor draft statements in response to the allegations. The advice, atrociously, even included how to deal with the news media.
And his employer, essentially, has let the star host get away with it. Cuomo’s normally news-driven prime-time show last week made no mention of one of the biggest stories of the day: the growing likelihood that his brother would either resign under pressure or be impeached. He’s been forbidden from covering or commenting on it. But there’s no reason to think that Cuomo has been disciplined in any meaningful way. Back in May, Chris Cuomo acknowledged, on air, that he had been “looped into calls” about his brother’s crisis.
It put his colleagues in a bad spot, he said, and it wouldn’t happen again. (This, of course, followed the network host’s having his brother on air for friendly banter many times during the early weeks of the pandemic in the spring of last year, when the governor was riding high on apparent competence and leadership.)
“I cannot imagine a world in which anybody in journalism thinks that that was appropriate,” CNN anchor Jake Tapper told the New York Times about his colleague’s advisory role to the governor. And others at CNN are reportedly similarly appalled.
But CNN’s higher-ups seem inclined to look away, in a manner all too reminiscent of what Fox News has done when one of its rainmakers does something outrageous or unethical. For the network with dozens of bureaus around the world and some 4,000 employees, it’s a cop-out. (CNN overall has given the Andrew Cuomo story extensive coverage, and its “Reliable Sources” show took up the media angle on Sunday, including the latest with Chris Cuomo, which host Brian Stelter called “a conundrum for CNN that has no perfect answer, that has no perfect solution.”)
But 150 miles upstate in Albany, a far better example is being set. Not exactly a household name, editor Casey Seiler got a little better-known last week after the attorney general’s report was published. It quoted from a phone call Seiler didn’t know was being recorded by the governor’s staff.
“Ugh, no, no! Not off the record,” Seiler protested, according to the report. “No, don’t send us anything unless it’s on the record, Melissa, okay?” He was referring to Melissa DeRosa, the top Cuomo aide whose resignation Sunday night can only be seen as a dire sign for the governor’s political survival.
Seiler told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner that DeRosa was trying to obstruct inquiries by the paper’s investigations editor Brendan Lyons, who runs the statehouse coverage. Lyons was chasing a tip about whether Cuomo had used his influence to get a young female state trooper put on his own protection detail, even though she didn’t have sufficient experience.
DeRosa called up Seiler, “irate beyond belief at the very notion that we would be asking those questions, and that it was sexist to even pose the question.” Seiler says he pushed back with a line he learned from Lyons: “Judge us by what we publish, not by the questions we ask.”
On Monday morning, the Times Union broke another big story. Brittany Commisso acknowledged in her first public statements — aired by CBS and published in the paper under Lyons’s byline — that she was the person identified as “Executive Assistant #1” in the attorney general’s report. The 33-year-old described how Cuomo groped her at the executive mansion, and she told the paper, “What he did to me is illegal.”
On Monday evening, Chris Cuomo won’t be on the air as he starts a supposedly long-planned vacation. It should be turned into — at least — an unpaid suspension of significant length. And CNN should be transparent with its viewers that its anchor acted unethically and that the network won’t countenance it.
Or at least that’s what I’d tell my students.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan