For the first time since last summer, when he was riding a wave of plaudits for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the top story during CNN’s 9 pm hour was about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Gov. Cuomo’s resignation, spurred on by a report by New York Attorney General Letitia James that detailed accounts of sexual harassment, was the biggest news story in America on Tuesday, and that included at CNN, where it was covered during every hour.
It was even the lead story at 9 pm, where the Governor’s brother, Chris Cuomo, typically anchors Cuomo Prime Time. But with Chris Cuomo on vacation for his birthday, it meant that the resignation was fair game. Anderson Cooper stayed on for an extra hour to cover the news, pre-empting Cuomo’s program, and chief national correspondent John King was among those providing analysis. (King was also on air earlier on Tuesday as Cuomo resigned, telling viewers, “You’ve been watching, simply, blockbuster news.”)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo was a regular presence on CNN in 2020, and in particular on his brother Chris’ show, where the two bantered, joked, and had serious discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic even as the CNN anchor battled the disease himself. However, after reporting on the state’s role in sending patients infected with COVID-19 to nursing homes became public, and later as the first harassment allegations were raised in December, the Governor’s appearances on the channel waned and eventually stopped.
An executive at another TV news outlet says they think CNN executives are “breathing a sigh of relief” that Gov. Cuomo is resigning while his younger brother Chris is on vacation. If the resignation occurred last week, or after Cuomo returned from his birthday vacation, the channel would have had to choose between pulling him off the air so they could cover story during the 9 pm hour, or simply having the biggest story of the day go uncovered in a highly-rated primetime hour.
Publicly, CNN executives have remained silent on the Chris Cuomo matter since the AG report was released, with spokespeople referring reporters to the statement they released in May, after it first came to light that Chris Cuomo was advising his brother.
“Chris has not been involved in CNN’s extensive coverage of the allegations against Governor Cuomo — on-air or behind the scenes. In part because, as he has said on his show, he could never be objective. But also because he often serves as a sounding board for his brother,” a CNN spokesperson said in a statement at the time. “However, it was inappropriate to engage in conversations that included members of the Governor’s staff, which Chris acknowledges. He will not participate in such conversations going forward.”
Cuomo himself apologized on-air that evening, telling viewers “it was a mistake, because I put my colleagues here, who I believe are the best in the business, in a bad spot. I never intended for that, I would never intend for that, and I’m sorry for that.”
What changed is the AG report, which the CNN host gave testimony for. The report suggested that Chris Cuomo played a larger role in the matter than previously acknowledged, including helping to draft a statement responding to an accuser, a statement that other CNN anchors would go on to cover.
The AG report also said that Governor Cuomo’s team of outside advisors “were regularly provided with confidential and often privileged information about state operations and helped make decisions that impacted State business and employees—all without any formal role, duty, or obligation to the State.”
Cuomo himself avoided any discussion of his Governor brother on the show after the AG report was released Aug. 3, though it was covered at 8 pm and 10 pm, with 10 pm host Don Lemon discussing the report just seconds after his nightly “handoff” discussion with Cuomo.
CNN Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter addressed the matter on his program last Sunday, beginning a segment “Chris Cuomo has a lot to say, but right now he cannot say it.”
“My sources say management has been clear about its position: He is not covering the Governor on TV, period, at all,” Stelter added, noting that any public statement would be picked apart regardless of what was said.
Ultimately, it all comes back to the decision to allow Chris Cuomo to interview his brother last spring and summer, after forbidding such interviews since 2013. Making that exception when the story was a positive one and then returning to the previous policy when things went sour “was a pretty bad look,” one CNN producer tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“Some think CNN made it worse by letting Chris interview his brother when COVID-19 was ravaging New York, but that was an unprecedented time period, and so is this one,” Stelter said of the matter on Sunday.
But the closer Chris Cuomo gets to the news stories that CNN has to cover, the harder it may be for CNN to hope the matter simply goes away once Gov. Cuomo vacates the executive mansion later this month. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Chris was one of the people who advised his brother to resign, underscoring the difficulty in separating the personal and professional roles.
A CNN source says that if any shoe is left to drop, it would likely stem from Chris Cuomo’s testimony to the New York AG. James’ office has said that redacted transcripts from all testimony will be released over time, and if the CNN host’s testimony contained anything that painted himself, or CNN, in a particularly negative light, it could be a cause for alarm.
For example, if the testimony showed the CNN host thought the women accusing his brother of harassment were lying, would he be able to fairly cover harassment claims leveled against public figures in the future? Or would he default to it being driven by “cancel culture,” as The Washington Post reported he told his brother’s staff?
It is that active role that led The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple to write that “CNN needs to commission a report of its own to determine just how its star anchor fit into this sexual harassment pushback effort.”
And it isn’t like CNN has any great options even if it did determine that Chris Cuomo could no longer do his job effectively. Cuomo, along with 10 pm host Don Lemon, have taken a more passionate, opinionated approach to covering the news, and have a personal chemistry that plays out during their “handoff” each night.
As Chris Cuomo told his brother on CNN last June, he will “never be objective” when it comes to him. And now that the Governor is set to step down, his younger brother won’t have to worry about needing to be objective about it.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any lingering impacts as more information comes to light. So while CNN executives may be happy that they won’t have to disrupt their primetime lineup to cover the news this week, the matter can’t be tossed in the dustbin yet.