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Opinion CNN’s Chris Cuomo scandal is Jeff Zucker’s scandal, too

Former New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo, left, and CNN host Chris Cuomo. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo via AP; Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Update, Nov. 30 at 8:55 p.m.: CNN announced on Tuesday night that it had suspended prime-time host Chris Cuomo based on the documents released by New York Attorney General Letitia James in connection with the investigation into alleged sexual harassment by former New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo. A CNN spokesperson issued this statement:

The New York Attorney General’s office released transcripts and exhibits Monday that shed new light on Chris Cuomo’s involvement in his brother’s defense. The documents, which we were not privy to before their public release, raise serious questions. When Chris admitted to us that he had offered advice to his brother’s staff, he broke our rules and we acknowledged that publicly. But we also appreciated the unique position he was in and understood his need to put family first and job second. However, these documents point to a greater level of involvement in his brother’s efforts than we previously knew. As a result, we have suspended Chris indefinitely, pending further evaluation.

The move to announce Chris Cuomo’s suspension marked an acceleration of the CNN timetable for considering disciplinary action against its star 9 p.m. anchor: A statement released on Monday by the network indicated that it would be reviewing these matters “over the next several days.”

The publication of the investigative documents — including a 348-page transcript of Chris Cuomo’s testimony regarding his extensive involvement in defending his brother against claims of sexual misconduct, plus a lengthy presentation of exhibits that include text messages and emails — caught CNN flat-footed. Its claim that it wasn’t “privy” to the documents is true, though it masks a considerable failing by network management.

Chris Cuomo is an employee of CNN. Had CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker and others wanted to probe more deeply into precisely what he had done on behalf of his powerful brother, they could have done so, in part by asking many of the same questions posed by the attorney general’s investigators. We have asked the network whether it, in fact, took those steps.

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Original story:

On July 15, CNN host Chris Cuomo testified in an investigation by the New York attorney general into the alleged sexual misconduct of Cuomo’s brother, then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York. “How do I protect my family? How do I help protect him?” said Cuomo during that session. “Probably should have been thinking more about how I protect myself, which just never occurred to me.”

That imperative has certainly occurred to the CNN host by now. In response to the release of investigative documents by New York Attorney General Letitia James, CNN on Monday issued this statement on Chris Cuomo’s wide-ranging efforts to help his brother through the crisis: “The thousands of pages of additional transcripts and exhibits that were released today by the [New York] Attorney General deserve a thorough review and consideration. We will be having conversations and seeking additional clarity about their significance as they relate to CNN over the next several days.”

A “thorough review and consideration,” huh? Does that mean that CNN is now investigating Chris Cuomo? That’s a step the Erik Wemple Blog urged CNN to take in August, after James released her report on the scandal — a document that noted the anchor’s role in the governor’s pushback campaign. The use of Chris Cuomo and other outside advisers with loyalties only to the governor, concluded the report, “contributed to creating an environment where the Governor’s sexually harassing conduct was allowed to flourish and persist.” (We’ve sought comment from Chris Cuomo and will update this post with any response.)

At that point, CNN could have gotten way ahead of Monday’s news cycle. Just like the investigators for the attorney general, it could have pressed its employee for everything about his involvement and then published the findings, along with any appropriate disciplinary action — you know, like a real news organization.

Instead, the network that prizes itself on covering breaking news is months late to a story sitting right in its own office.

There’s a pandemic-long backdrop to this saga: In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when Andrew Cuomo was basking in adoration for his handling of the crisis, Chris Cuomo had no compunctions about hosting his governor brother for some kissy and much-commented-upon interviews. Those compunctions set in months later, as sexual harassment allegations piled up.

“Obviously, I’m aware of what’s going on with my brother. And, obviously, I cannot cover it, because he is my brother,” said Chris Cuomo in March of this year. When The Post reported in May that Chris Cuomo had participating in strategy sessions with the governor’s team, CNN issued a statement conceding that “it was inappropriate to engage in conversations that included members of the Governor’s staff, which Chris acknowledges.”

On Aug. 16, following the release of the attorney general’s report, Chris Cuomo told his viewers that he was speaking his “final word” on the matter. “My position has never changed,” said Cuomo during his broadcast that night. “I never misled anyone about the information I was delivering, or not delivering, on this program. I never attacked nor encouraged anyone, to attack any woman, who came forward. I never made calls to the press about my brother’s situation.”

Really? In his testimony, Cuomo was asked whether he’d investigated whether there would be additional accusers coming forward against Andrew Cuomo. His response: “Yes … I would — when asked, I would reach out to sources, other journalists, to see if they had heard of anybody else coming out.” Elsewhere in his testimony, Cuomo said, “I tried to never approach anybody who was covering the story. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, you know?” In text messages with Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s top aide, Chris Cuomo writes “On it” when asked if he could check his sources about an upcoming story in Politico. Later on, Chris Cuomo writes back, “No one has heard that yet.”

Among Chris Cuomo’s intelligence tasks was to discover when Ronan Farrow’s investigation would appear in the New Yorker. In his testimony, he said he didn’t call Farrow himself because he didn’t want to influence the story. However: “The idea of one reporter calling another to find out about what’s coming down the pipe is completely business-as-usual,” he argued.

Well, sort of: It is indeed commonplace for a reporter who’s working on a story to seek info on a competitor’s publication timeline; it is not, however, commonplace for a journalist who’s running a political consulting operation for his brother to seek info on a competitor’s publication timeline. (Farrow declined to comment on the record.)

In another text message, Chris Cuomo wrote to DeRosa, “I have a lead on the wedding girl,” a reference to Anna Ruch, who told the New York Times that Andrew Cuomo had touched her inappropriately at a September 2019 wedding. Chris Cuomo checked out the story and found that Ruch had been “consistent” from the start about her claims. “So that’s that,” said Chris Cuomo.

Everyone should be so lucky as to have a family member as faithful as Chris Cuomo. “He’s my brother,” he testified. “And if I can help my brother, I do. If he wants me to hear something, I will. If he wants me to weigh in on something, I’ll try.”

Yet Chris Cuomo also has meaningful responsibilities to his viewers and his colleagues at CNN. In this case, those loyalties and responsibilities conflicted: Sure, help your brother, but don’t provide messaging advice to the governor of New York; don’t follow a lead on the “wedding girl”; don’t become a player in a top national story that your own colleagues are trying to nail down.

Yet, thus far, Chris Cuomo has escaped CNN disciplinary action for running afoul of commonly understood journalistic guidelines. His immunity stems in large part from his standing: a face of the network, a highly paid anchor and a close colleague of CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker. Any mid-level producer who did a comparable amount of line-crossing would have met the full wrath of the CNN News Standards and Practices Policy Guide.

It’s unclear how many details of Chris Cuomo’s involvement were known to CNN all along. What is clear is that 100 percent of his misdeeds are also now the misdeeds of Zucker, who didn’t launch a “thorough review and consideration” months ago, before the damning emails and texts surfaced.

Because those emails and texts usually surface, somehow or other.