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With his star status secure at CNN, Chris Cuomo skirts controversy again

Chris Cuomo of CNN attends the WarnerMedia Upfront 2019 event at Madison Square Garden in May 2019. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Turner)
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As they waited for the news to break last week, Chris Cuomo struck an uncharacteristically deferential tone with his boss.

“I’ll do whatever you think I should do,” the combative CNN host told the network’s president, Jeff Zucker, just before the anticipated publication of a story that would expose him for having crossed one of journalism’s ethical lines. As The Washington Post reported Thursday, Cuomo participated in official strategy sessions with political advisers guiding his brother, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), on how to respond to sexual-harassment allegations.

Zucker had tolerated other missteps by his increasingly controversial prime-time star. But this time, he informed Cuomo that he had crossed a line. And he urged him to go on TV to explain himself.

In some ways, it was a classic move on the part of Zucker, a veteran of NBC’s entertainment division during the rise of reality TV, to capitalize on some behind-the-scenes drama by turning it into programming. (His conversation with Cuomo was described by people familiar with the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations at CNN.) Yet it also tracked with CNN’s by now well-established policy of how to deal with the roiling, inherent conflict of the Cuomo brother dynamic — essentially by embracing it.

And even as many CNN employees griped privately about Cuomo’s decision to insert himself into his brother’s political operation, by early this week it seemed likely that he would survive this controversy, too, in large part because of Zucker’s unwavering support.

At a town hall meeting for staff members Tuesday, Zucker acknowledged the concerns about Cuomo’s seemingly untouchable status at CNN while defending his decision not to punish him by taking him off the air.

“There is no one else in Chris’s shoes,” Zucker told the staff, referring to the newsman’s unique identity as the brother of a major newsmaker. “There are not special rules for Chris, and it does not excuse his mistake. It was more powerful and more honest to publicly say he screwed up and for him to publicly acknowledge his mistake.”

As the anchor of one of the nighttime hours that cable news has increasingly ceded to opinion, Cuomo also has more latitude to venture into personal expression than traditional news-deliverers — part of CNN’s justification for his jovial, soft-focus segments interviewing the governor during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Yet the revelation that Cuomo had taken on the role of political adviser brings CNN ever more uncomfortably into the kind of partisanship adopted by conservative rival Fox News Channel, whose prime-time hosts regularly counseled Donald Trump during his presidency.

“It baffles many of us inside why the network seems to exempt Chris from so many of the good limitations that journalists should adhere to,” said one of CNN’s on-air journalists, speaking on the condition of anonymity to criticize colleagues.

Cuomo has also been criticized for receiving priority access to state coronavirus testing, because of his family connection, and for abruptly avoiding coverage of his brother once the governor’s handling of the pandemic came under fire. Yet at every turn, he has had the support of his boss.

Zucker hired Cuomo in his first month as president of the cable giant in January 2013, when he deployed the former ABC News reporter to co-anchor CNN’s then-struggling morning show. The two have an easy rapport, according to people who work with both men, and Cuomo was an early adopter of Zucker’s push to move CNN beyond its strait-laced origins and encourage hosts and anchors to bring more personality and “authenticity” to the airwaves.

“What I love about Chris is that he’s passionate about every story he tells,” Zucker said in 2013. Neither Cuomo nor Zucker agreed to be interviewed for this article.

In June 2018, CNN promoted Cuomo to 9 p.m., cable news’s most coveted slot. “The perfect cable news anchor,” Zucker called him in an interview the following year, praising his feisty, blunt interviewing style.

“Cuomo Prime Time” has become CNN’s most-watched show, and although his ratings typically trail those of his 9 p.m. counterparts — Sean Hannity on Fox News and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC — he recently achieved a major victory when his show attracted more viewers in the coveted 25-to-54 demographic for the first three months of the year.

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When Cuomo joined the network, CNN stipulated that he would not be able to cover his brother. But CNN lifted that ban when New York emerged as the pandemic’s epicenter, with the host himself battling covid-19. Cuomo’s six interviews with his brother drew big ratings, and the governor’s popularity surged, in part because of the calm but firm manner he presented in televised news conferences from Albany, for which the politician was awarded a special Emmy.

Since then, though, the news cycle has darkened for the governor, who is facing multiple investigations related to his handling of coronavirus-related nursing home deaths and allegations of sexual harassment, in addition to charges that he improperly arranged priority testing for his family members during the early stages of the pandemic. He has denied wrongdoing.

On CNN, Chris Cuomo reverted to his old policy of not reporting news about the governor. “Obviously, I am aware of what is going on with my brother,” he told viewers on March 1. “And obviously, I cannot cover it because he is my brother.”

But The Post’s article last week — revealing that Cuomo had joined conference calls to strategize a response to the sexual harassment allegations, advising his brother to stand firm and not resign — put him ever closer to the governor’s current difficulties.

Chris Cuomo took part in strategy calls advising his brother, the New York governor, on how to respond to sexual harassment allegations

After Zucker and Cuomo met last week, Cuomo spent the rest of the day workshopping his apology, going through nearly 10 drafts before landing on a statement that cast himself as “family first, job second.” He went on the air that night to apologize, saying: “I put my colleagues here, who I believe are the best in the business, in a bad spot. I never intended for that, I would never intend for that, and I am sorry for that.”

He told viewers that he had been “walled off” from CNN’s coverage of his brother and never tried to influence it. He also vowed not to repeat his mistake, saying, “I know where the line is.”

The apology appeased some at CNN, who considered it heartfelt and unusual, given Cuomo’s typically aggressive style. For others, “it was a band-aid on a bullet hole,” as one on-air CNN personality called it.

“Folks are disappointed. There’s no question about that,” said another on-air reporter.

At the staff meeting, Zucker responded to a question about Cuomo from an employee. “I understand the unease,” he said. “Chris made a mistake.”

But Zucker argued that suspending Cuomo would have served no purpose other than punishment for the sake of punishing.

“I didn’t think taking him off the air for a week or two made any sense,” Zucker said. “It was more important to be honest and transparent. I’m not surprised Chris had conversations with his brother. Who wouldn’t? Where he screwed up was doing that in the presence of his brothers’ aides.”

A CNN veteran who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation said the network had clearly decided to stick by Cuomo, referring to the latest controversy as a “litmus test” for his value at the network.

“If they wanted to get rid of him, here’s the perfect excuse,” the person said. “And, they apparently want to stick with him, for some mysterious reason.”

Meanwhile, CNN may have reasoned that Cuomo’s ethical lapse might not trouble those who’ve been tuning in to watch him.

“Cable news — especially the evening lineup — is beset more and more by partisan cheerleading,” said Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School. Although most journalists are troubled by such a blurring of lines, Grueskin noted that audiences may not be so finicky: “Perhaps once viewers become comfortable with their network of choice, they care less about these conflicts.”