Are journalistic ethics ready for prime time? Not at CNN, it would appear.
CNN gave Chris Cuomo a pass on a clear ethical violation committed behind closed doors, and claimed Cuomo had no influence on the network's coverage of his brother. That was not true.
I’ve long been critical of CNN’s Sunday “Reliable Sources” program with Brian Stelter, or perhaps the better word would be disappointed. What could be a hard-hitting examination of the news media, its strengths and weaknesses, all too often turns into an establishment oriented mish-mash of conventional wisdom and easy targets. The show’s obsession with Fox News and Donald Trump are symptoms of the problem, when some of the most important debates about modern journalism focus on failures at the New York Times, Washington Post, and other legacy media—including CNN itself.
But yesterday’s program reached a new low, in my opinion. With the sexual misconduct allegations against New York governor Andrew Cuomo in the headlines and a major story for CNN itself, it was an opportunity for Stelter to explore the serious ethical issues that have been raised concerning Chris Cuomo’s relationship to the story. That would have shown that the program was not sparing its own host network from serious examination, a no-brainer for any legitimate news outlet.
Instead, Stelter spent six full minutes discussing his interviews with anonymous sources at CNN itself, and what they thought about the ethical issues that have been raised—not just about Chris interviewing his brother during the pandemic, which raised questions in many minds, but what in my view are the much more serious transgressions Chris Cuomo committed by consulting with the governor and his staff over how Andrew Cuomo should respond to the sexual misconduct allegations.
Stelter’s segment ended with some slushy words about how it was Chris’s birthday, he was taking some well-deserved time off, and his colleagues at CNN were still very fond of him.
There was not one interview with an outside source, an expert in journalistic ethics, or anyone else who might have provided an independent and critical view.
Cuomo’s advisory role to his brother was revealed last May in a scoop by Washington Post reporters Josh Dawsey and Sarah Ellison, who reported that Chris Cuomo urged Andrew to take a “defiant position” concerning the allegations. In other words, Chris Cuomo was urging his brother to in effect smear the victims and survivors of the harassment and assaults, which is in fact what top aide Melissa DeRosa and other aides did up until DeRosa’s resignation yesterday.
When Chris Cuomo’s role was revealed, he offered an on air apology, saying “it was a mistake” and “It will not happen again.” Then and later, both Chris Cuomo and CNN have insisted that Chris did not influence CNN’s coverage nor was involved in it in any way.
We now know that these statements are not true.
Thanks to a lengthy investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James, we now know much more about Chris Cuomo’s role. In fact, he did not just “advise” the governor or provide general PR tips. Rather, Chris Cuomo provided the exact language for a statement the governor’s office put out last February, and which was quoted widely by hundreds of news media outlets including CNN itself.
Probably the best report on this was on August 3, from NBC News reporter David K. Li. I can’t do better than to excerpt the relevant sections of Li’s story:
In a Feb. 27 chain of messages to other Cuomo allies, political consultant Lis Smith wrote, "I don't love that part but Chris/Andrew wanted in" and "Chris wants to make sure we have enough contrition in here." Smith did not definitively identify "Chris" as being Chris Cuomo, but the messages align with other suggestions he is reported to have made about messaging.
Chris Cuomo was copied into a series of Feb. 27 emails from Gov. Cuomo's communications director, Peter Ajemian, and his chief of staff, Josh Vlasto, to other top aides mapping how they should delicately handle allegations by Charlotte Bennett. They seemed to agree that the best strategy would be to praise Bennett as a "hardworking and valued member of our team" while denying her allegations.
It also appeared that Chris Cuomo played a role in writing the overall response Gov. Cuomo issued on Feb. 28 as the sexual harassment allegations reached an apex.
In an email at 3:20 p.m. ET on Feb. 28, Vlasto replied to an email from Chris Cuomo that included language that would largely make up a statement issued later by the governor.
"Questions have been raised about some of my personal interactions with people in my office," the statement attributed to Chris Cuomo's email said. "I spend most of my life at work and colleagues are often also personal friends. I never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm."
The email continued that "sometimes I am playful and make jokes," adding: "You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. My only desire is to add some levity and banter to what is very serious business."
Later that day, Andrew Cuomo posted a statement addressing the allegations on the governor's official website.
The statement, time-stamped 5:45 p.m. ET, mirrored, nearly word for word, the email attributed to Chris Cuomo.
The governor's statement, which was picked up by several news outlets within minutes, said: "Questions have been raised about some of my past interactions with people in the office. I never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm. I spend most of my life at work and colleagues are often also personal friends.
"At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way. I do it in public and in private," the statement continued. "You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business."
So not only is it not true that Chris Cuomo did not influence the coverage by CNN and other news outlets, he provided the very statement, put into Andrew Cuomo’s mouth, that the major media ran that day. And he did it all behind closed doors, violating all principles of transparency in journalism (see below.)
I am far from the first to point out this was a very serous ethical transgression by Chris Cuomo. And as others have also pointed out, CNN, by taking no disciplinary action of any kind (yet) against Chris Cuomo, is directly condoning violations of journalistic ethics. Meanwhile, other journalists, such as Felicia Sonmez of the Washington Post and Lauren Wolfe of the New York Times have suffered severe consequences for openly expressing opinions on issues of the day such as sexual assault and Biden’s election. Chris Cuomo’s transgressions were behind closed doors, and we only know about them because an AG investigation revealed them.
Like most established journalists, I am a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, the flagship organization for our profession. Chris Cuomo probably is too, along with many or most journalists at CNN and other publications. Here is our code of ethics:
I went through the code and picked out eight violations clearly committed by Chris Cuomo when he advised the governor and his staff how to respond to sexual misconduct allegations.
1. "Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information."
2. "Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless."
3. "Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all."
4. "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts."
5. "Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility."
6. "Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content."
7. "Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations."
8. "Abide by the same high standards they expect of others."
Anyone who has watched Chris Cuomo’s prime time show knows that he is easily outraged and expects a lot of others, especially politicians and other leaders. But as they say, the rules are not for everyone, and clearly journalistic ethics are not something that either Cuomo or CNN feel they have to adhere to—especially when both he and the network are making so much money from that prime time slot.
It’s a sad state of affairs in many ways. But for those of us who teach journalism, and try to instill a strong ethical sense in our students, it’s very, very troublesome. Kathleen Bartzen Culver—an expert in journalistic ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—pointed this out in an important commentary for USAToday several days ago:
I cast my eyes with tremendous pride on the work my students are doing in journalism every day. One covered a mass shooting with empathy and nuance. Another broke open a story of abusive practices in a city jail. A number handled difficult calls with older readers as they struggled to find access to vaccines during the pandemic. And scores are doing the daily grind of showing up at city councils and school boards to keep government accountable to the public.
Time and again, I see them do this work with sincerity and integrity. So it’s awful to see someone tweet about the Cuomo situation, saying, “Ethics in journalism? That's been long, long gone. No one has any trust in the media anymore.”
Cuomo squandered his journalistic independence by getting involved in saving his brother’s political career. But he also put a sword in the hands of people who would call journalists “enemies of the people.”
And for that, he should be sorry.
Yes, Chris Cuomo should be sorry, and so should CNN—for the damage they have done to journalism, and to the idealism of the journalists of the future. And they should show they are sorry by making sure there are consequences for flaunting journalistic ethics, rather than telling us, in effect, that ethics are just for suckers and junior reporters and not prime time TV stars.
Update: Shortly after posting this, I saw Erik Wemple’s blistering commentary in The Washington Post, which makes similar points—and also takes Brian Stelter to task for the terrible whitewash on yesterday’s “Reliable Sources.”