On Monday evening, Chris Cuomo began his CNN nightly show, Prime Time, with an unsurprising announcement. He would not be covering the day’s biggest story: the sexual harassment allegations that had been made against his brother, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Obviously, I’m aware of what’s going on with my brother,” Chris Cuomo said. “Obviously, I cannot cover it because he is my brother. Now, of course, CNN has to cover it. They have covered it extensively, and they will continue to do so.”
Obviously. Chris has spoken in glowing terms about his older brother; Andrew has described himself as being “somewhere between a father and a brother” to Chris, who is 13 years his junior, when their father, former New York governor and Democratic Party legend Mario Cuomo, was busy. Chris couldn’t be expected to cover his scandal-plagued brother in anything approaching objective terms. He’s family, after all.
This conflict was just as obvious a year ago, when Andrew was a regular guest on Prime Time. But for three months, CNN allowed him to appear on the program seemingly whenever he liked. The result was a kind of mishmash of helpful information about Covid-19 and a reality TV show, featuring two brothers joshing each other about who was their mother’s favorite.
The lighthearted “interviews” were integral to Andrew’s rising profile and popularity last year. They’re also the most egregious examples of the media’s kid-gloves handling of Andrew Cuomo during the early stages of the pandemic.
Andrew Cuomo is not the kind of politician one would expect to be a media darling. He is a gruff public speaker, a pugilist without much telegenic appeal. He is famously unpleasant and known for running a press shop built in his own image—which is to say, one known for being overbearing and pugnacious. As a politician, he is a master of the dark arts—of arm-twisting and backroom deals—but has much less to offer as a retail politician. It is impossible to imagine him kissing a baby.
But last spring, Cuomo’s no-nonsense approach was held up as an antidote to Donald Trump. The White House’s public statements, whether coming from press conferences or from Trump’s Twitter account, were rightly believed to be counterproductive at best and deadly at worst. Cuomo, meanwhile, largely played it straight: He was open about the difficult period his state was going through. As Carl Bernstein told CNN last spring, Cuomo was offering “real leadership of the kind the president of the United States should have provided to the American people throughout this crisis, but hasn’t.”
The Cuomo administration’s apparent cover-up of nursing home deaths in the early spring of 2020 has received extensive attention over the last month, and there have always been serious questions about Cuomo’s handling of the virus overall. Cuomo spent much of February and early March downplaying the threat that Covid-19 represented. “Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers—I speak for [New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio] also on this one—we think we have the best health care system on the planet right here in New York,” Cuomo said on March 2. “So, when you’re saying, what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.” Less than three weeks later, the state shut down. As The New York Times reported in April, early attempts by “New York officials to stem the outbreak were hampered by their own confused guidance, unheeded warnings, delayed decisions and political infighting.”
But by the summer, Cuomo had become a fixture of national media for one simple reason: He was good television. That fact trumped his own performance as governor and played into the same bias that helped bring us Donald Trump: When Andrew Cuomo was on television, the ratings went up. As a result, the governor’s many rough edges were sanded down.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in his appearances on his brother’s show. For years, CNN blocked Chris Cuomo from covering his brother. Last spring, the network relented. The two brothers reminisced about old times while confronting a terrifying virus. When Chris himself became ill with Covid, Andrew wished him well. Did any of this serve any journalistic purpose? No. They were good television, a regular source of viral content. CNN was more than happy to set its standards aside when Andrew Cuomo was one of the most popular political figures in the country. Now he is damaged, possibly fatally so, and all of a sudden CNN has rediscovered its ethics.