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Why Chris Cuomo’s ‘family first’ defense just doesn’t fly

Chris Cuomo during a televised CNN townhall in October 2019. The CNN star wasn’t giving his brother a kidney, Sullivan writes. He was using his media power to help his brother keep political power. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
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After much dithering, CNN leadership finally did the right thing on Tuesday when it put its star anchor Chris Cuomo on an indefinite suspension from the network.

There was no other choice consistent with even a modicum of journalistic standards after the New York state attorney general released thousands of pages of evidence related to the investigation of sexual misconduct charges by 11 women against former governor Andrew M. Cuomo, the TV host’s older brother.

They revealed just how enmeshed the younger Cuomo had become in trying to save his brother’s career and reputation in the 18 months before he resigned under fire.

Chris Cuomo not only offered advice and participated in strategy sessions with government officials but used his media contacts to run down intelligence about the negative stories planned by other news outlets. Texts suggest he was even helping Cuomo’s top aide dig up information about one of the accusers.

“I have a lead on the wedding girl,” he texted, referring to Anna Ruch, who complained that the governor had made an unwanted advance on her at a wedding in New York City. (You’ve probably seen the photo of Ruch trying to smile through her discomfort as the governor took her face in his hands.)

As the news of the host’s suspension broke big — it was even covered on some network evening newscasts Tuesday — his situation generated some sympathy.

“I confess to some ambivalence about Chris Cuomo’s suspension,” wrote former New York Times reporter and columnist Clyde Haberman. While a deserved punishment, he noted, “wouldn’t you help your brother if he fell into trouble even of his own making?”

One member of my informal focus group (some tennis-playing friends in Buffalo) echoed this idea Tuesday night. Cuomo “said family first, job second. How do you fault him for that?” my friend texted me, adding that he objects to “cancel culture.”

Chris Cuomo and his CNN bosses have continually articulated this “family first, job second” philosophy in recent months, although that logic is thoroughly misguided. In this case, I’d call it downright twisted.

This was not about taking a leave of absence from your job as a teacher, let’s say, to donate a lifesaving kidney to your brother. I hope we would all do that.

No, this was about a high-powered media star using his considerable juice to blunt credible accusations of sexual assault and misconduct against the governor of New York.

Power helping power, in the service of disrupting the investigation of potential crimes.

“I have three brothers and I would absolutely not help them if they were sexually harassing women,” author Lyz Lenz wrote in response to Haberman. “In fact, I would help write the exposé.”

Even if you accept the idea that Chris Cuomo is less a journalist than an entertainer, the rules of journalistic ethics still ought to apply. He is, as much as anyone, the face of CNN.

So what are these ethical rules? Pretty simple. You don’t abuse your position in journalism — whether at a weekly newspaper or a major network — for personal or familial gain.

If you’re a journalist, you don’t write a letter on news-organization letterhead to the City Council asking for a special easement on your property. You don’t accept a case of wine at holiday time from a local real estate developer if you’re a business reporter.

And you certainly don’t do what Chris Cuomo did: involve himself with a crisis-management effort that could influence the outcome of a criminal investigation of the highest elected official in New York. It’s wrong.

I’ll argue that his ethical transgressions began far higher up on this slippery slope, with a much less severe conflict-of-interest infraction. That was early in the pandemic, when CNN carved out a major loophole that allowed their host to actually interview his governor brother on air several times, complete with softball questions and backslapping humor about whom Mom loves best. That happened a half-dozen times, especially at the start of the pandemic. At the time, I wrote that, while certainly questionable, it seemed fairly harmless as a form of comic relief, given the extraordinary circumstances.

However, it’s easy to see now that if CNN had strictly enforced its original ban on Cuomo-to-Cuomo coverage in 2020, maybe this later mess wouldn’t have come to pass.

For quite a while over the past several months, it looked as though CNN would continue to stand by the star anchor — just as Fox News consistently has done for the misdeeds of its rainmakers like Tucker Carlson, who spreads harmful misinformation, and Sean Hannity, who long ago crossed the line from mere cheerleader for former president Donald Trump to become an actual behind-the-scenes counselor.

When The Washington Post reported in May that the younger Cuomo had participated in strategy sessions with the governor and his advisers, CNN acknowledged that the conduct was inappropriate, and Cuomo apologized on air.

That seemed to be the end of it. Then, this week, the situation got much worse with the damning document release.

Zucker did the right thing, and given all that’s known now, it’s hard for me to see why he would bring Cuomo back.

Putting “family first” may sound appealing. But in this case it’s nothing but an excuse for unethical behavior and a breach of journalistic standards.

READ MORE from Margaret Sullivan:

What happens to democracy when local journalism dries up?

‘More immediate, more visceral’ and a lot tougher on Eric Clapton: A plan for reviving Rolling Stone

Trump’s favorite channel, One America News, was never ‘news’ at all

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