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The Chris Cuomo Affair Is an Indictment of America’s Elite Media Culture

Chris Cuomo abused his platform at CNN to help his politically besieged brother. It was flagrantly unethical, but in keeping with the culture of complete unaccountability for unethical abuse that American media elites have long enjoyed.

Chris Cuomo speaks at a town hall forum hosted by CNN at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, 2016. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

When all is said and done, the major takeaway from Chris Cuomo’s suspension by CNN is less about the fact of it happening than it is about the many, patently obvious ethical barriers that had to be transgressed before it finally did.

Earlier this week, the network officially put the anchor on indefinite hiatus following the release of evidence by New York Attorney General Letitia James that showed him repeatedly offering advice to members of his brother’s inner circle amid a litany of scandals. Most egregiously, newly released text messages reveal the younger Cuomo agreeing to leverage his network of media contacts to gather intelligence about forthcoming articles concerned with the serious allegations of sexual harassment which ultimately led to the elder Cuomo’s downfall.

It’s all pretty appalling, and an obvious breach of basic media ethics (to say nothing of various other kinds). But none of it is particularly shocking in light of what was already known, or the many ways the CNN star has hitherto been permitted to operate according to a completely different set of rules and moral standards than those which bind the rest of us. As far back as May, he was reported to have participated in conference calls featuring his brother’s aides, lawyers, and spin doctors — a revelation which elicited a liturgical on-air apology and zero action from the network beyond a perfunctory statement. Even allegations of sexual harassment against the younger Cuomo himself apparently failed to move network brass, who earlier this year even floated the possibility of granting a temporary leave so that he could devote more time to assisting with his brother’s defense.

Cuomo’s violation of rudimentary journalistic norms extends even before the cycle of events which ultimately resulted in his suspension. CNN allowed him to cover his own brother for months throughout the global pandemic, having permitted him as far back as in 2013 to interview him live on air. Amid predictable and well-founded questions, the network instituted a ban on similar interviews — a ban it abruptly decided to end in March 2020 in the crass pursuit of ratings.

As a pure business decision, the calculation paid off, and viewers were duly treated to segments of insufferable on-air banter in which the brothers Cuomo traded yarns about their basketball skills, work ethics, and which one of them their mother preferred. The younger Cuomo’s ratings doubled and, as his brother presided over the national epicenter of the pandemic, he leveraged his prime time cable slot to bolster a burgeoning (and entirely untrue) narrative of competent leadership in the face of crisis.

Remarkably, even after the network’s decision to put its erstwhile star on indefinite suspension, Chris Cuomo has found his defenders — most prominently in some elite media and political circles, where an absurd conception of family loyalty has taken up a part of the line advanced by CNN in its most recent statement. “When Chris admitted to us that he had offered advice to his brother’s staff, he broke our rules and we acknowledged that publicly,” reads a release from the network. “But we also appreciated the unique position he was in and understood his need to put family first and job second. However, these documents point to a greater level of involvement in his brother’s efforts than we previously knew. As a result, we have suspended Chris indefinitely, pending further evaluation.”

It’s a sentiment basically echoed by the likes of Chris Cillizza, who remarked: “For those asking: @ChrisCuomo is my friend. I would *never* walk away from a friend — in good times or bad. I support the @cnn decision. And I will also be there if Chris needs me. That’s what friends do.” This schtick has even gained traction across the partisan divide, with none other than Fox’s Tucker Carlson mounting a spirited defense of his fellow prime time anchor and even seeking to give it a populist spin:

Helping his brother is not the worst thing Chris Cuomo ever did, in fact it may have been the best thing he ever did. Not because Andrew Cuomo was a good person — he certainly wasn’t a good person, Andrew Cuomo was loathsome — but Andrew Cuomo was Chris Cuomo’s brother and that’s what you do with brothers, even the loathsome ones. You help them when they need it. Period. It’s called loyalty… So, when we tell you that the media are corrupt, we don’t just mean they are corrupt politically, it is much deeper than that. They don’t acknowledge the most important rules in life, your first obligation is to your family.

Another version of this argument, of course, might scan a bit differently. Most of us, after all, are not lavishly paid media elites who hail from political dynasties and are unlikely to have counted any of our parents or siblings among the most powerful executives in the United States. Loyalty to family and friends is indeed a principle worth cherishing and defending. But for those of us not in elite circles it generally implies gestures like the extension of moral support, offering to loan money in difficult times, or holding bonds to be unconditional even when someone has done something others cannot forgive.

The Cuomo affair, however, is not actually about any of these things.

No one is demanding, or has demanded, that Chris Cuomo sever all ties with his brother but rather that he not abuse his position, which affords him a platform of considerable public and media power, to engage in obvious conflicts of interest. Playing an active role in protecting a besieged and disgraced politician’s political fortunes is patently not the same as standing by a family member in a time of need, a fact which still seems to elude Cuomo’s lingering defenders in the media. Remarkably, speculation has already emerged from within CNN that the anchor could return as early as January — offering further evidence, as if any were needed, that corporate media personalities can get away with just about anything provided it doesn’t interfere with a network’s bottom line.

True enough, loyalty to one’s own is a value worth embracing. In elite media circles, however, solidarity clearly carries a very different kind of meaning.