The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After months of unease, CNN moved to suspend Cuomo when confronted with documents

On his radio show, the host said he acknowledges the network’s reasons for punishing him for his involvement in his governor brother’s crisis-management efforts.

Chris Cuomo in New York in 2019. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
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CNN had long faced pressure from outside the building as well as growing unease within the company over Chris Cuomo’s involvement in the messy political and personal affairs of his governor brother.

Yet it was ultimately the thousands of pages of documents released Monday by the state of New York that seemingly weakened the tight bond between CNN chief Jeff Zucker and his top-rated on-air personality.

The documents showed that while Cuomo had informed his bosses of the broad contours of his aid to former governor Andrew M. Cuomo, he had failed to loop them in on the more damning details — how he had used his powerful network perch to try to sniff out intel about the women who had accused his brother of sexual harassment or the plans of other news organizations to publish stories about him.

“The document dump made it look like Cuomo lied to Jeff, and Jeff is loyal to the end, but if you [cross] him, he’s done,” posited one executive who had talked extensively to Zucker over the past months and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive personnel matters.

Late Tuesday, CNN announced that it was suspending Cuomo from his high-profile 9 p.m. hosting slot indefinitely. The following morning, Zucker addressed the matter briefly in a staff meeting and made it clear that the decision had been his. “I felt it was the appropriate course of action,” he told staffers, according to two people on the call. "We will keep you posted on how we deal with programming going forward.”

Before this week, many of the rank-and-file inside CNN had come to feel a lot of “discomfort that it seemed Jeff was willing to give [Cuomo] a pass,” according to one on-air personality, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss a colleague.

Yet only one network personality, Jake Tapper, had gone public with a critique of Cuomo. In May, after The Washington Post reported that Cuomo had been advising his brother, the anchor said in a podcast interview that “I cannot imagine a world in which anybody in journalism thinks that that was appropriate.”

Cuomo responded publicly Wednesday to CNN’s decision to suspend him, acknowledging that it was painful.

“It hurts to say it. It’s embarrassing,” he told listeners of his SiriusXM radio show.

But he acknowledged and said he accepted the rationale for the network’s decision. “And, I understand why some people feel the way they do about what I did. I’ve apologized in the past. I mean it. It’s the last thing I ever wanted to do, was compromise any of my colleagues and do anything but help.”

CNN did not specify how long the suspension would last, but the network has a track record of sometimes allowing people back on the air after stints in the penalty box.

Someone close to the situation said that the network would not be undergoing this evaluation process if a decision had already been made about Cuomo’s future.

The 9 p.m. time slot is generally the most-watched hour of cable news, and Cuomo’s suspension leaves a hole in the lineup as CNN conducts a “further evaluation” of new materials released on Monday.

On Tuesday night, Cuomo’s shift was handled by Anderson Cooper, the network’s 8 p.m. host, who previously filled the 9 p.m. hour before the network promoted Cuomo to prime time from his role as co-anchor of the morning show “New Day." Cooper will continue at 9 p.m. for the rest of the week, but no decision has been made about a longer-term substitute.

In suspending Cuomo, the network is sidelining the host who generally attracts more viewers than any anchor on the network. In the third quarter of this year, Cuomo’s show attracted nearly 960,000 total viewers on an average night, leading the pack once again but still trailing the competition on Fox News and MSNBC.

But whether the move simply buys time or is a more permanent solution, it leaves CNN and Cuomo with significant questions to answer just as the network is preparing to merge with Discovery, a deal that’s expected to close in the middle of next year.

Another CNN personality noted that many on CNN’s payroll believed Zucker’s defense of Cuomo — a cordial but sometimes difficult colleague — seemed “untenable and egregious” since news first came out that Cuomo participated in official strategy sessions with his brother’s political advisers.

At the time, the network expressed sympathy for Cuomo’s situation, saying that he “could never be objective” when it comes to his brother, but said that his participation in meetings with the governor’s staff was “inappropriate.”

Zucker had decided then that instead of suspending Cuomo, it made more sense for him to address the controversy on air. “I didn’t think taking him off the air for a week or two made any sense,” Zucker told employees at the time. “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.”

“I’ll do whatever you think I should do,” the combative CNN host told Zucker then, according to people familiar with the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations at CNN.

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

Cuomo told his listeners Wednesday that he will keep his distance from the process and will not make any additional comments about the suspension.

“I know they have a process that they think this is important,” he said. “I respect that process. So, I’m not going to talk about this anymore than that.”

He struck a more defiant tone on Tuesday, before the news of his suspension, using his radio show on Tuesday to criticize the process that led to his brother’s resignation and arguing that he did not receive “due process.”

“Andrew had his party enforcing a rule against him that if you have accusations, you have problems, and you don’t really get to vet the accusations and you don’t get to go against your accusers,” he told listeners. “But, eventually, when there wasn’t going to be due process, and his party was against him, then he had no choice because he couldn’t do the work of the state anymore.”

He sounded more chastened on Wednesday, though. And after acknowledging his embarrassment and “hurt,” Cuomo turned his show back to the news, rather than news about him and his family. “For right now, let’s just get after it, and there’s plenty to do on that score,” he said.

(This article, originally published at 2 p.m., has been substantially updated with new reporting.)