CNN cut back on coverage of one of the biggest news stories of the day during its primetime schedule due to a very unorthodox situation: The anchor not telling the story is the brother of the public official at the center of it.
The WarnerMedia-backed outlet kept anchor Chris Cuomo on the air Tuesday night even as it worked to cover a state investigation that found Cuomo’s older brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, had sexually harassed 11 women, and as top U.S. officials including President Joe Biden called for New York’s top government executive to step down. The younger Cuomo, who has vowed to keep himself away from the story, focused instead on the issue of getting vaccinated against coronavirus. Governor Cuomo has denied the claims made against him.
More from Variety
CNN’s somersaults to keep one Cuomo from covering the other were noticeable. “We are focused on COVID here,” Chris Cuomo told viewers as he opened his 9 p.m. program. Within seconds of the anchor’s hand off to CNN’s 10 p.m. anchor, Don Lemon, coverage of the allegations against the governor returned on screen in full force. Lemon made the topic the subject of his opening segment, and an on-screen chyron read: “President Joe Biden Calls On Gov. Cuomo To Resign.” During Chris Cuomo’s show, CNN scrolled some headlines about his brother’s challenges at the bottom of its graphics display.
CNN has backed Chris Cuomo for months, even though the anchor has strayed into challenging territory. In May, the network revealed it had no plans to discipline Chris Cuomo despite the fact that he provided counsel to his brother during staff meetings held to devise strategy to fend off sexual harassment accusations. At the time, CNN said that “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.”
It is one thing for a network to keep an anchor away from a story about which they can not be objective. It is another, however, to not cover the story at all in one of the network’s most popular hours. Chris Cuomo’s show, “Cuomo Prime Time” attracted an average total viewership of 985,000 in July, according to Nielsen, making it CNN’s most-watched program.
In a different era, CNN encouraged the younger Cuomo to put a spotlight on his sibling. During the height of the pandemic, Gov. Cuomo made a handful of appearances on his sibling’s program, and the banter between them drew crowds. “The early months of the pandemic crisis were an extraordinary time. We felt that Chris speaking with his brother about the challenges of what millions of American families were struggling with was of significant human interest,” the network said in a statement in February. “As a result, we made an exception to a rule that we have had in place since 2013 which prevents Chris from interviewing and covering his brother, and that rule remains in place today. CNN has covered the news surrounding Governor Cuomo extensively.”
Cuomo the anchor acknowledged in May he can’t cover his brother in a fair and independent manner. “I can be objective about just about any topic, but not about my family,” he said during a broadcast in May. He added: “But 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. It’s not always easy.”
Some prominent news organizations have taken pains to separate employees from coverage of relatives who gain traction in the public sphere. At CBS News, former division president David Rhodes kept himself away from editorial decisions that had to do with coverage of his brother, Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser during the Obama administration. In 2019, James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of The New York Times, recused himself from any of his department’s coverage of the run up to the 2020 presidential election after his brother, a Colorado senator, announced his candidacy.
Like other cable-news outlets, however, CNN is navigating an era after the 2020 election when some of the intense viewership that built up around the importance of that event has began to trail off. And Chris Cuomo remains CNN’s top draw.
All three cable-news networks have audiences decline, but CNN, which saw viewership levels soar in late December and early 2021, has grappled with a bigger fall off than its two main rivals. For the month of July, CNN’s primetime audience between the ages of 25 and 54 – the audience most coveted by advertisers in news programming – was off 52% from the year-earlier period according to Nielsen data. Meanwhile, the Fox News Channel primetime audience in the demographic was off 36% while MSNBC’s was down 44%. Chris Cuomo’s show typically draws fewer viewers than its main time-slot rivals, Fox News’ “Hannity” and MSBNC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.”
Best of Variety