If you understand why Chris and Andrew Cuomo ‘put family first’, that’s a problem

Though the CNN anchor has now been sanctioned, a lot of commentators are defending his actions as ‘what any brother would do’. That, frankly, is astounding

Kathleen N. Walsh
New York
Wednesday 01 December 2021 17:11
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<p>CNN-CHRIS CUOMO</p>

CNN-CHRIS CUOMO

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It was reported months ago that CNN anchor Chris Cuomo had played a hand in helping his brother, disgraced former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, weather a cascade of sexual assault allegations followed by a damning attorney general investigation in the media. But only on Tuesday did it become clear the extent to which Chris had acted as his brother’s personal image consultant while simultaneously reporting on the scandal. He has since been suspended by CNN.

While the public discourse surrounding Chris’s involvement in covering for Andrew has largely condemned his actions as a serious ethical breach, there is also a strong strain of Wouldn’t you do the same if it was your brother?” To which I give an unequivocal: No.

“If my brother ever ever gets embroiled in scandal, I’m gonna do some unethical sh*t to help him out,” wrote journalist Matthew Yglesias in a — since deleted — tweet. Democratic strategist Lis Smith, who was found to have assisted the governor in covering up the allegations, also wrote and deleted a tweet saying, “The job of brother, sister, mother, daughter, father, son always comes first.” This line of thinking was not limited to Twitter. Even CNN, in the official statement announcing Chris’s suspension, wrote, “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.”

The brothers Cuomo leaned more heavily into their family ties than usual during the pandemic. During Andrew’s frequent appearances on Chris’s CNN show, their playful sparring cast the governor as a gruff but warm-hearted big brother while generating scores of social media-ready clips and boosting Chris’s ratings. I don’t doubt the authenticity of the Cuomos’ bond, and I confess to having been charmed by it myself. What I do not buy is the argument that, in helping Andrew cover up his crimes and smear his accusers, Chris was simply acting as any good brother would. That kind of family-above-all mafia logic found among the characters on Succession has no place in families this powerful, with the ability to influence elections and impact the lives of millions.

After all, Chris did not just offer advice, as he had indicated previously. Newly released documents show that Chris used his own media sources and influence to dig up damaging information on Andrew’s accusers and get ahead of upcoming stories. He even drafted Andrew’s public statements himself, using his insider knowledge to advise his brother, the governor, on how to handle the media — of which he was a highly influential member.

I love my siblings, and I would do almost anything to protect them. But if my siblings are doing active harm to others, I would consider it my duty to try to stop them. Take the brother of far-right Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who has been publicly and loudly denouncing his sister for years. Or the siblings of Representative Paul Gosar, who wrote an op-ed in this very publication calling for his removal.

Chris’s duty as a member of the free press, the only profession protected by the Constitution, was to his viewers and to the public. It’s why a judge will not hear a case that involves a family member. It is why jurors are asked to disclose any conflicts of interest.

Journalists with close family ties to politicians and political administrations has long been a problem, an ethical quandary that occasionally rises to the level of public interest and would appear to have an obvious solution (quit your job), but is quickly and quietly stifled when there is no smoking gun. Recusing oneself in the case of so obvious a conflict of interest is central to journalistic ethics. At a time when public faith in the media and in journalism is so low, and when rebuilding that trust is so vitally important to combat deadly misinformation and safeguard our democracy, Chris had no right to protect his brother. He betrayed us all.

Not to mention the rights of Andrew’s victims. Chris exploited his influence and his resources to attempt to discredit them, to re-traumatize them. He used his power to shore up that of his brother and to publicly excoriate those who would expose him — which is supposed to be his job as a journalist.

If your only principle is family then you have no principles at all.

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