Andrew Cuomo's resignation as governor of New York might have been a godsend for CNN. The network faced a nearly intractable conflict of interest: The governor was a major national figure, but his brother, Chris, was also one of CNN's prime-time stars. Instead, the fallout from Andrew Cuomo's departure has made Chris Cuomo's position untenable. He should resign; if he doesn't, CNN should sack him.
On Monday, New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose investigation into sexual-harassment complaints against the Democratic governor precipitated his August resignation, released new documents that show how Chris mixed his roles as brother and broadcaster. The documents show that he was engaged in passing information to a top aide to the governor, Melissa DeRosa, as his brother's team scrambled to respond to accusations. "I have a lead on the wedding girl," he texted DeRosa, referring to a woman who complained that Andrew had made an unwanted advance at a wedding.
"When asked, I would reach out to sources, other journalists, to see if they had heard of anybody else coming out," Chris explained in an interview with the attorney general's office. He said he had only been seeking info about whether other complaints against his brother were forthcoming, not trying to dig up dirt on accusers. "I would never do oppo research on anybody alleging anything like this. I'm not in the oppo research business."
This is not the first revelation about Chris Cuomo's flawed handling of the scandal. Long before the allegations against Andrew, CNN had tried to find a finely sliced solution: Chris wouldn't cover his brother's travails on air, and he could confer with his brother on a personal basis, but he shouldn't deal with the governor's staff. The Washington Post reported in May, however that Chris had participated in meetings with staff members. He apologized on air, and CNN issued a statement saying, "It was inappropriate to engage in conversations that included members of the Governor's staff, which Chris acknowledges," but that he had not been disciplined.
The new revelations demonstrate more serious errors of judgment. When Chris Cuomo simply offered advice to staff members, he failed to observe the rules CNN had set for his private behavior. But by gathering information from "sources" and passing it to his brother's staff, Cuomo committed the more egregious step of directly mixing the journalistic work of calling sources and gathering information with his personal, familial commitments. He was wise not to go further into the realm of "oppo research," but he still went far beyond the bounds of propriety.
Perhaps few can blame Chris Cuomo for being "family first, job second," as he said in May. "Being a journalist and a brother to a politician is unique, and a unique challenge, and I have a unique responsibility to balance those roles." Whether that balance was ever truly achievable is debatable, but the conflict between the roles eventually became irreconcilable. He could have chosen to step down from his job to back his brother, or he could have chosen to distance himself from the scandal and commit to journalism. Instead, he tried to have it both ways. In using his journalistic skills and access to aid his brother, Cuomo broke trust with his employers and, more important, his audience.
CNN bears some of the blame. For years, the network banned Chris Cuomo from interviewing his brother, a commonsense precaution. But in the spring of 2020, as the coronavirus ravaged the country, Andrew Cuomo presented himself as a competent counterpart to Donald Trump's pandemic bungling. CNN, knowing ratings gold when it saw it, decided to put the brothers on air together, apparently concluding that the rules mattered less in the midst of a crisis.
The exchanges between them were entertaining--lots of brotherly jibes about who was the favorite child and who hadn't called Mom recently--and sometimes poignant, as when Chris fell sick with COVID-19 and interviewed Andrew from basement isolation. Journalistically, however, the shtick was appalling, as I wrote in May 2020. Rather than ask tough questions of his brother, Chris grilled him on whether he'd run for president. Again, no reasonable person would expect Chris to hold his own brother's feet to the fire. The mistake was allowing them on air together in the first place. The puffy news coverage helped make Andrew Cuomo a liberal hero (briefly) and also helped obscure the serious shortcomings of New York's pandemic response, including deaths in nursing homes that the governor tried to cover up. As it turned out, the rules mattered even more in a crisis, when watchdog journalism could be literally a matter of life and death.
Just like the coronavirus, karma is highly transmissible. The adoring coverage of Andrew Cuomo fueled a backlash against his long-standing bullying. A legislator who'd challenged him over COVID-19 said the governor had threatened to "destroy" him. Soon after, a former aide publicly aired allegations of sexual harassment, which were quickly followed by many more. The process took a few months, but Andrew Cuomo's fate was sealed. (Chris Cuomo has faced his own allegations of sexual harassment. A former colleague at ABC wrote in a New York Times column in September that he had groped her in 2005. Cuomo acknowledged and apologized at the time of the incident and again when the column was published.)
When he was advising his brother earlier this year, Chris Cuomo encouraged Andrew to dismiss calls for his resignation as "cancel culture," and perhaps he will take the same view against calls for his own resignation. But the defense doesn't stick here. Hosting a prime-time television show is a privilege, not a right. Chris Cuomo doesn't need to be drummed out of journalism, but he does need to face repercussions. By keeping Cuomo on the air and in his job, CNN would send the message that journalistic ethics are only for the little people and viewers are on their own. Cuomo should take some time off and reflect on his chosen profession--and if and when he comes back, perhaps he should choose a new beat.