The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Cuomo brothers put on quite a show. Should the journalism-ethics police shut it down?

Even after CNN anchor Chris Cuomo was diagnosed with covid-19, he and his brother Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.) have continued to publicly joke with each other. (Video: The Washington Post)
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A month ago, it would have seemed unlikely — ridiculous, even — that the most riveting duo in America would be the Empire State’s combative governor and his kid brother, the wide-eyed cable-news host.

But here we are.

New York’s Andrew, 62, who leads the state with far and away the most covid-19 cases and deaths, is appearing almost daily on live television to explain the grim numbers on his Power Point slides and dispense soulful guidance about staying socially distant but spiritually connected.

CNN’s Chris, 49, is infected with coronavirus but continued to broadcast his evening show from the basement of his home, where he is quarantined and sometimes feverish.

Together on the air their pointed-but-affectionate sparring has been surprisingly addictive viewing.

One of my millennial children has taken to texting me in New York City from 300 miles across the state in Buffalo: “Cuomo brothers on CNN alert.” (In one text he acknowledged: “Strange life I’m living.”)

Sometimes comical, sometimes somber, sometimes emotional, their joint TV appearances have become one of the strangest outgrowths of the coronavirus pandemic — almost as compelling as another favorite distraction of this hunkered-down nation, the true-crime documentary miniseries “Tiger King.”

Not everyone approves of the Cuomo Brothers show.

“This is something I cannot wrap my head around,” Fabian Reinbold, Washington bureau chief for a large German news organization told me in an email this week. “It would be considered highly inappropriate and corrupt back home.” He was particularly taken aback by Chris Cuomo’s choice to actually participate in Thursday’s news conference, piped in via videoconference to hold forth to the gathered press corps. He wore a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of his CNN show, “Cuomo Primetime,” further blurring the roles of brother and anchor.

Andrew Cuomo during the covid-19 crisis is the same as ever, with one big difference: People like him

That moment may have proved too much for competitors Fox News and MSNBC, who cut away from the New York governor’s briefing soon after.

Others have questioned the journalistic propriety of repeatedly interviewing one’s brother on prime-time TV, as Chris Cuomo has been doing for weeks.

Jon Allsop at Columbia Journalism Review, for one, disapproves. He reasonably suggests a less fraught approach: “There are plenty of ways Chris Cuomo could communicate about his health with CNN viewers while also taking time to recuperate. While he’s out, a colleague could talk with his brother.”

But to a nation inured to nepotism by the likes of First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner spouting ill-informed policy views from a White House podium, this is pretty harmless stuff. It’s akin, perhaps, to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd occasionally turning over her column to her conservative brother — not exactly a case for the journalism-ethics police to come battering down any doors. (Dowd observed recently that the dinner-table vibe of the gubernatorial briefings was causing viewers to “crave Chianti and meatballs.”)

Cuomo’s show, like other cable prime-time programming, is not straight news coverage any more than this column is. It has to be considered as commentary or opinion-journalism, like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. In other words, it must be truthful and fact-based but it gets some leeway in tone and content.

It’s true, in theory interviewing one’s brother isn’t a journalistic practice to be eagerly sought.

Still, the familial episodes have served a worthwhile purpose — giving Andrew Cuomo another venue to get his “stay home” message across to New Yorkers, and perhaps all Americans.

And, as of a few days ago, Chris Cuomo’s own experience with the disease may help people understand how difficult it is to have even a mild case.

Shivering, hallucinating, beaten ‘like a piñata’: Chris Cuomo’s ‘haunted’ night with coronavirus

“It was like somebody was beating me like a piñata, and I was shivering so much that . . . I chipped my tooth,” he said, describing one agonizing night with the illness.

“I wouldn’t call it reassuring, but I think it’s something that people want to know and to see and to hear,” former Newsweek editor and former CNN executive Mark Whitaker said in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

And so it seems: The ratings for “Cuomo Primetime” more than doubled from their average in March of 2019 to 2.8 million on Tuesday, shortly after his positive diagnosis was announced.

Before the diagnosis — and before the New York death toll moved into the thousands — Andrew Cuomo’s appearances on his brother’s show were partly an excuse for fraternal sparring over who’s really Mom’s favorite. (The nation is now on a first-name basis with 88-year-old Matilda; as well as Andrew’s 22-year-old daughter, Michaela, who sometimes appears at his briefings.)

These days, with the death toll soaring and fevers raging, the levity may take an unpredictable turn, as it did Thursday when, in his briefing cameo, Chris Cuomo described a feverish hallucination to his brother.

“You came to me in a dream — in a ballet outfit, you were dancing in the dream waving a wand and saying I wish I could (make it) go away.” Employing his trademark deadpan expression, the governor stated there might be some “metaphorical reality” to Chris’s vision and pondered the mental toll of the disease on the man he calls his best friend.

The Cuomo Brothers show may get darker, as these dire days tick past, but it’s hard to imagine it getting much weirder.

READ MORE by Margaret Sullivan:

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Local journalism needs a coronavirus stimulus plan, too

The media must stop live-broadcasting Trump’s dangerous, destructive coronavirus briefings

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