CNN fires Chris Cuomo amid inquiry into his efforts to aid his brother
By Michael M. Grynbaum, John Koblin and Jodi Kantor
Star anchor Chris Cuomo was fired by CNN on Saturday (4), completing a stunning downfall for the network’s top-rated host amid a continuing inquiry into his efforts to help his brother, Andrew Cuomo, then the governor of New York, stave off sexual harassment accusations.
The anchor was suspended Tuesday (Dec 30) after testimony and text messages released by the New York attorney general revealed a more intimate and engaged role in his brother’s political affairs than the network said it had previously known.
On Wednesday (Dec 1), Debra S. Katz, a prominent employment lawyer, informed CNN of a client with an allegation of sexual misconduct against Chris Cuomo. Katz said in a statement Saturday that the allegation against the anchor, which was made by a former junior colleague at another network, was “unrelated to the Gov. Andrew Cuomo matter”.
It was not fully clear what role the allegation played in CNN’s decision to dismiss Cuomo. Katz is also the lawyer for Charlotte Bennett, a onetime aide to Andrew Cuomo who accused the former governor in February of sexual harassment.
Asked about the new allegation, a CNN spokesperson said in a statement Saturday night: “Based on the report we received regarding Chris’ conduct with his brother’s defence, we had cause to terminate. When new allegations came to us this week, we took them seriously, and saw no reason to delay taking immediate action.”
A spokesperson for Cuomo, Steven Goldberg, said in a statement Saturday, “These apparently anonymous allegations are not true.”
Katz said that her client “came forward because she was disgusted by Chris Cuomo’s on-air statements in response to the allegations made against his brother, Gov. Andrew Cuomo.” Katz cited a March 1 broadcast in which Chris Cuomo said, “I have always cared very deeply about these issues, and profoundly so. I just wanted to tell you that.”
Cuomo’s spokesperson responded that the former anchor “fully stands by his on-air statements about his connection to these issues, both professionally and in a profoundly personal way. If the goal in making these false and unvetted accusations was to see Mr. Cuomo punished by CNN, that may explain his unwarranted termination.”
Earlier Saturday, CNN said it had “retained a respected law firm to conduct a review” of the anchor’s involvement with Andrew Cuomo’s political team. “While in the process of that review, additional information has come to light,” CNN said. “Despite the termination, we will investigate as appropriate.”
As the gregarious and sometimes combative host of CNN’s 9 p.m. Eastern time hour, Cuomo was at the peak of a broadcast journalism career that he had forged outside of his famed political family. But it was the troubles of his brother, who resigned the governorship in August that ultimately embroiled Cuomo in a controversy that appeared to precipitate his dismissal.
“This is not how I want my time at CNN to end but I have already told you why and how I helped my brother,” Chris Cuomo said in a statement earlier Saturday. “So let me now say as disappointing as this is, I could not be more proud of the team at Cuomo Prime Time and the work we did as CNN’s #1 show in the most competitive time slot.”
Until last month, Cuomo had enjoyed the support of CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, and he faced no discipline for his behind-the-scenes strategizing with Andrew Cuomo’s political aides, a breach of basic journalistic norms.
But documents released Nov. 29 revealed that the anchor offered advice on Andrew Cuomo’s public statements and made efforts to uncover the status of pending articles at other news outlets, including The New Yorker and Politico, concerning harassment allegations against his brother.
Zucker — who had been steadfast in backing Chris Cuomo, at one point saying the anchor was “human” and facing “very unique circumstances” — informed the anchor Saturday that he was being fired. “It goes without saying that these decisions are not easy, and there are a lot of complex factors involved,” Zucker wrote in a memo to CNN staff.
The spectacle of a high-profile anchor advising his powerful politician brother amid scandal was a long-standing headache for many CNN journalists, who privately expressed discomfort at actions that, in their view, compromised the network’s credibility. CNN anchor Jake Tapper went public with his concerns in May, telling The New York Times that his colleague had “put us in a bad spot,” adding, “I cannot imagine a world in which anybody in journalism thinks that that was appropriate.”
Even so, the timing of Cuomo’s firing, on a Saturday at 5 p.m. Eastern time, caught many members of the CNN newsroom off guard.
The network’s decision earlier in the week to suspend Cuomo had left open the possibility that he might return to the channel at a later date. CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, speculated on air Wednesday that it was “possible he’ll be back in January.”
The network said Tuesday it would begin an internal review of Cuomo’s conduct. But its executives had not immediately planned to hire an outside law firm, according to a person familiar with the network’s internal decision-making process. That plan changed in recent days, and CNN declined Saturday to identify the name of the law firm it had retained.
Before joining CNN, Cuomo spent years as an on-air correspondent, covering wildfires, shooting rampages and war zones, most prominently at ABC News. He was one of Zucker’s first major hires after he became president of the network in 2013. A morning show, ‘New Day’, was organized in part around Cuomo’s bombastic, fast-talking on-air personality.
The awkwardness of his relationship with Andrew Cuomo — who was among the most powerful Democratic politicians in the country — became apparent almost immediately: In 2013, the network was criticized after Chris Cuomo twice interviewed his brother on ‘New Day’.
In 2018, Cuomo moved to prime-time, taking the coveted 9 p.m. slot. ‘Cuomo Prime Time’ became CNN’s highest-rated hour, although it regularly attracted fewer viewers than competitors on Fox News and MSNBC.
At the onset of the pandemic, Andrew Cuomo became a leading national figure in the government response. Chris Cuomo began interviewing his brother in prime time, and their teasing banter and emotional conversations became a hit with viewers. Ratings surged further after Chris Cuomo contracted the coronavirus; he continued broadcasting, and interviewing his brother, from quarantine in the basement of his Long Island home. Zucker praised the segments for their “authenticity and relatability and vulnerability”.
“That’s what the brothers Cuomo are giving us right now,” Zucker told the Times in April 2020.
The next year, as Andrew Cuomo was facing an increasing number of sexual harassment accusations, Chris Cuomo recused himself from reporting on the scandal, leaving a prime-time hole in CNN’s coverage of what was turning out to be a national news story.
At the same time, away from the anchor desk, Chris Cuomo was participating in strategy sessions with the governor’s top aides. It also emerged that Andrew Cuomo had arranged for his brother’s COVID tests to receive priority treatment by the state. CNN did not discipline Chris Cuomo, and at one point offered the anchor a leave of absence if he wished to more formally help his brother.
After Andrew Cuomo resigned, Chris Cuomo defended himself on the Aug. 16 episode of his program. “I’m not an adviser, I’m a brother,” the anchor said. “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.”
But the new batch of testimony and text messages suggested that Cuomo did function as an adviser and did reach out to journalists. “When asked, I would reach out to sources, other journalists, to see if they had heard of anybody else coming out,” he told investigators.
-New York Times