Even after firing Chris Cuomo, CNN cannot erase months of disregarding basic ethical standards
CNN fired Chris Cuomo for helping his brother and former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo fight off sexual assault accusations, but enabled its star anchor for too long.
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In the opening days of the pandemic, as I looked for a replacement for sports, I turned to politics and CNN. Each night, I turned to the network, often around 9 p.m., just in time for “Cuomo Prime Time” with Chris Cuomo. I quickly became a fan, eagerly waiting for the latest news about COVID-19. But then my journalist ethics kicked in, raising red flags as the star anchor regularly invited his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to discuss the COVID-19 explosion in New York City.
I figured the network was simply making an exception because of the pandemic, and -- honestly and regrettably -- trusted that the parties had a good reason. But I shouldn't have. As I heard that CNN fired Chris Cuomo the other day, I immediately thought about how naive I was. There was no reason for the Cuomos to collaborate like that, or for the network to allow it. CNN could have had any other anchor interview the then-governor, but allowed the family reunion to go on, night after night. It is an inexcusable lapse from a network that presents itself as a leader in cable news.
The ignorance toward journalistic ethics is glaring, and it falls on both Chris Cuomo and CNN. Not getting professionally involved in coverage of family members is just about the most basic form of integrity as a journalist. But in the bigger picture, it speaks volumes that CNN, which simultaneously played the watchdog role in monitoring the Trump Administration's response to the pandemic, provided the platform for this to happen.
It is important for individual journalists to have ethics -- it's part of the job, possibly the most important part, -- but that can't take all responsibility from the outlets. Whether a network or publication, the platform must bear some of the brunt. I'm no expert, but it would be naive to think Chris Cuomo didn't have support in creating a nightly agenda or at least have to run an agenda by somebody else at CNN.
Furthermore, this went on for weeks during the first wave of the pandemic, and CNN actually lifted the ban it had on Chris Cuomo having his brother on his show. He wasn't even allowed to report on issues involving the then-governor, but for some reason, the network made an exception.
CNN reimposed the ban earlier this year, but it shouldn't have been lifted in the first place. The purpose of journalism is largely to hold powerful and influential people accountable. And at the time of these conversations, Andrew Cuomo was one of the most influential people in the country. He had all eyes on him as New York City emerged as the epicenter of the pandemic. If it was going to have exclusive interviews with him, CNN should have invited him to any other show to demand the truth about ICU beds, demand the truth about the nursing home numbers, demand the truth about what kind of shape New York was in. And if the concern was getting the governor on the network in the 9 p.m. window -- which I doubt -- then swap “Cuomo Prime Time” with “Anderson Cooper 360” from the 8 p.m. hour.
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It was unreasonable, unethical and unprofessional. CNN prioritized ratings over integrity, knowing that people would tune into the conversation between brothers. I blame the Cuomos -- mainly Chris because he should know better and care more about integrity as a journalist -- but 90% of this is on CNN. We are in a time when journalism is as much a business as ever and ultimately lacks trust of everyday Americans. Stories like these are why people have little faith in journalism.
Moreover, it speaks volumes that CNN pretended there was nothing wrong with what was happening. Even as the network fired Chris Cuomo, it was because he helped his brother fight sexual assault accusations, not because he violted foundational rules of journalism. That was the right thing to do for the right reasons, but it should have never gotten to that point, and it doesn't erase the episodes of “Cuomo Prime Time” that failed viewers.
The network had no choice but to fire him. He was accused of sexual assault. So I don't know if applauding it is the right thing to do. But it reflects the effectiveness to which CNN is able to control the coverage it receives.
It makes sense, though. It was a way to shift all of the focus to Chris Cuomo. A media organization was controlling the media coverage it would receive, and it was effective. But the scary thing is: I don't know if the right people at CNN see the Cuomo-on-Cuomo interviews -- if we even call them that -- as problematic. I'm sure some of the employees see the ethical issues, but there's little they can do, outside of not repeating the lapse on their show; speaking out would risk their jobs. But it doesn't look like the executives or decision-makers had a problem with the Cuomos collaborating on national television.
How is that possible? The only answer can be the ratings. But regardless, it's inexcusable. Chris Cuomo shouldn't have been in position to have his brother on his show. One could argue that he should have control over his show, but the network should have drawn lines somewhere, and interviewing your brother would qualify as crossing the line, even if he was a leader in the pandemic response at the time.