The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chris Cuomo’s ratings soared when he interviewed his brother last spring. Now that’s off-limits.

Andrew and Chris Cuomo. The brothers appeared together frequently on CNN last year.
Andrew and Chris Cuomo. The brothers appeared together frequently on CNN last year. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
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For years, CNN had a sensible policy about whether Chris Cuomo could interview his older brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Simply put: He couldn’t. The idea behind the ban, of course, was that it would be inappropriate, unseemly and against sound journalistic principles for one of their hosts to interview or feature a close family member who happens to be one of the most powerful figures in the nation.

But then came the unprecedented events of last spring, as the coronavirus pandemic roiled the world and as New York City became its scary epicenter.

All bets were off.

CNN relented on its ban, and the Cuomo Brothers show soared to popularity. By day, Andrew Cuomo would calm and console the nation at his news briefings through the wonders of PowerPoint and homespun aphorism. When evening came, he might be found providing comic relief mixed with more virus perspective on his brother’s cable-news show.

When Chris Cuomo himself got the coronavirus, he continued broadcasting from his basement.

Viewers ate up the brothers’ kitschy trash talk about who was Mom’s favorite and the size of the governor’s nose — and the Cuomos managed to get across some important information about the virus.

Journalism purists were appalled.

“It would be considered highly inappropriate and corrupt back home,” one German journalist told me, particularly incensed about the bizarre moment when Chris Cuomo beamed into the governor’s news briefing, wearing a CNN “Prime Time” cap.

Considering it in my column, I infuriated a lot of Cuomo fans by asking whether the “journalism-ethics police” should shut down the fun.

I concluded that this wasn’t really a straight news show. It should be filed under entertainment or opinion — and that all the joshing might be serving an educational purpose at a critical moment. And after all, it was pretty mild stuff compared with what was happening over at Fox News each night, where Sean Hannity was playing the role of President Donald Trump’s shadow chief of staff as Trump played down the virus. That judgment now looks too lenient on my part.

These days, CNN’s ban is back and in full force. With the governor under career-threatening fire over recent sexual harassment claims and with the apparent mishandling of some parts of his administration’s covid-19 response in the news, the brother act is over.

On his show Monday night, the younger Cuomo briefly acknowledged the governor’s escalating troubles and tried to explain why he couldn’t possibly take them up.

“Obviously, I’m aware of what’s going on with my brother. And obviously, I cannot cover it because he is my brother.”

Translation: I was able to cover my brother when he was wildly popular and we could burnish both of our brands by my featuring him on my show and dropping by his briefing. But now I cannot possibly touch this matter. That would be a terrible conflict of interest.

In his brief monologue, Chris Cuomo duly noted that CNN was covering the claims against his brother thoroughly. He reassured viewers that he cares deeply about “these issues” — apparently meaning sexual misconduct — and then moved on. (On his radio show Tuesday, he elaborated, objecting to social media criticism following Monday’s broadcast, and noting that he had forecast, on the radio show last year, that the norm would eventually return.)

It’s all just a little too convenient and slippery. One of Chris Cuomo’s defenses when he was criticized last spring was that his treatment of his brother wasn’t all fluff: He really did ask him newsy questions — like whether he might run for president.

And, of course, the ratings were hard to argue with: “Cuomo Prime Time” more than doubled its year-over-year viewership for a period last spring, shortly after the host’s positive diagnosis was announced.

Even before the sexual harassment claims of the past few weeks, CNN had clamped down again.

“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,” a CNN spokesperson told the Associated Press last month after troubling questions arose about whether the administration had not disclosed the number of nursing-home deaths due to covid.

“As a result, we made an exception to a rule that we have had in place since 2013, which prevents Chris from interviewing his brother, and that rule remains in place today.”

I could almost get behind that reasoning if it didn’t try to employ journalistic sleight-of-hand: Now you see the ban, now you don’t.

If it was acceptable to discuss issues of life and death last spring, it ought to be acceptable to take up serious subjects now.

If it was journalistically inappropriate from 2013 through 2019 for Cuomo to interview Cuomo, then that should have been the case in early 2020, too.

And if last spring’s fraternizing was really intended all along to be a short-lived, term-limited exception to a long-standing rule, then that should have been made abundantly explicit to CNN’s viewers.

But to explain the change away with “obviously, I cannot cover it because he is my brother”?

That sounds like the network’s situational ethics masquerading as transparency. Granted, it’s not reasonable for viewers (or media critics) to demand that Chris Cuomo hold his own brother’s feet to the fire over mishandling covid or over sexual harassment claims.

That’s why the original rule made sense.

CNN established a reasonable Cuomo-to-Cuomo policy back in 2013. It’s clear now, if it wasn’t fully clear before, that network brass should have resisted temptation and stuck with it.

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