CNN Grapples With Chris Cuomo Chaos

“I like being uncomfortable,” Chris Cuomo told Variety in 2018. “I like making other people uncomfortable.” Looks like he succeeded.

CNN fired Cuomo, its most-watched anchor, over the weekend for exactly that reason. Though Cuomo had become emblematic of a new era at CNN, one filled with journalists who practiced holding newsmakers to account rather than just delivering the news, Jeff Zucker, WarnerMedia’s chairman of news and sports, and other executives no longer felt assured about their relationship with the anchor, according to people familiar with the matter.

The rupture was a long time coming. CNN stood by Cuomo through altercations captured on video; an accusation of unwelcome physical behavior; and sharp elbows thrown behind the scenes in the newsroom. But there was a harrowing stretch last week: New York State Attorney General Letitia James released documents showing Cuomo took an active hand in helping his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, while the politician was accused of sexual harassment by several women, and an attorney representing a former news colleague of Chris Cuomo’s levied allegations of sexual misconduct against him. After all that, CNN felt its anchor had used up the proverbial nine lives.

The question now is whether Cuomo’s reversal of fortune at CNN is a product of extraordinary circumstances or if he’s just the latest in a line of prominent cable-news anchors handed too much leash by their corporate backers due to the viewership they capture in an era when big TV audiences are difficult to find.

CNN has long given Cuomo leeway. His brother held a high state office and was a prominent member of the Democratic Party. That made the anchor a target, no matter what he said on TV. Fox News Channel anchors often poked fun at him, and paparazzi tracked him. So when he was caught on camera verbally sparring with provocateurs in 2019, or was accused of behaving inappropriately in a claim raised this year by former ABC News producer Shelley Ross (Cuomo denied he touched her in a sexual manner, and said he apologized), CNN didn’t deride him in public.

More troubling, however, was the disclosure this year that Cuomo had discussed defending his brother with members of the governor’s staff, a move widely considered a breach of journalistic ethics. CNN executives trusted Cuomo’s assurances that he had only been acting as a family member and wasn’t doing any work for his brother’s team, according to a person familiar with the matter. When the attorney general released documents, however, showing he did significantly more, like following leads on accusers, Zucker and others felt betrayed. CNN called for a standards-and-practices review and asked an outside law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, to examine the matter, the person says. CNN believed it had cause to part ways with the anchor who, since the launch of his “Cuomo Prime Time,” notched a critical TV element: improved primetime ratings.

As this all unfolded, CNN was approached on Dec. 1, by Debra S. Katz, an employment-law attorney. She represented a client, yet to be identified, who was alleging past sexual misconduct by Chris Cuomo. “By Friday, I was in discussions with CNN about providing documentary evidence of my client’s allegations and making my client available for an interview with CNN’s outside counsel,” she said in a statement. CNN announced Cuomo’s termination a day later.

Cuomo could not be reached for comment via email, but a statement released by a spokesman called the sexual misconduct allegations “false and unvetted.” As to the broader issues around his departure, Cuomo said in a statement Monday “the way my time ended at CNN was hard.” He is also leaving his weekday talk show on SiriusXM.

Other cable-news outlets have granted top anchors latitude they would not have enjoyed just a few years ago. MSNBC’s Joy Reid in 2018 found herself under scrutiny after the discovery of a group of unsavory, even offensive, posts she made on a blog earlier in her journalism career. She made things more difficult when she claimed that an unknown party had hacked the now defunct blog, and even said at the time she had engaged a cybersecurity expert to find evidence — none of which has ever been brought to public discussion. Her colleague, Lawrence O’Donnell, was forced to retract a report in 2019 in which he alleged Russia had co-signed many of President Trump’s loans. “We don’t know whether the information is inaccurate, but the fact is we do know it wasn’t ready for broadcast, and for that I apologize,” he had to say during one of his MSNBC broadcasts. Fox News’ Sean Hannity, on two different occasions, lent a promotional boost to the campaign of former President Donald Trump, appearing in a campaign video in one instance, and getting on stage at a Trump rally in the other. “Fox News does not condone any talent participating in campaign events,” the Fox Corp.-owned news network said in a statement in 2018. “This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed.”

Some news executives may be paying as much attention to ratings and relationships as they do to ethics lapses. The news networks are operating in an era when viewership is becoming harder to ensure. More consumers are migrating to streaming, on-demand video, and the trend is manifesting at a tough time for news outlets — in the months following a presidential election, when viewership typically declines noticeably. With that business dynamic in full swing, benching a popular anchor is a more difficult prospect. It wasn’t just a decade ago: In 2010, MSNBC suspended its most-watched personality, Keith Olbermann, for making donations to three Democratic politicians.

Such punishment can still be part of the playbook. Now CNN must turn to the difficult task of rebuilding its primetime schedule. Executives aren’t going to rush to fill the slot — Fox News has found it can rotate anchors and hosts at 7 p.m. and during “The Five” and maintain or grow audiences — and are mulling a range of potential concepts, according to people familiar with the situation.

CNN could tap an internal staffer, consider an outsider or create something entirely new. Already there is chatter that a panel show, akin to Fox News Channel’s successful “The Five,” might be under consideration, according to a person familiar with some discussions. One challenge to filling Cuomo’s hour is a general sense by many in the business that straight-news programs no longer work in primetime, and there’s concern that placing a news anchor like Jake Tapper or Brianna Keilar in an opinion slot might cloud how viewers perceive them.

There are other ideas: Could Don Lemon move his late-night broadcast to 9 p.m.? Is Laura Coates, a regular evening fill-in anchor, ready for primetime? Might CNN consider an anchor from another outlet whose contract is about to lapse, like NBC News’ Brian Williams or CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell or Gayle King (and would executives from soon-to-be-parent Discovery, not known for profligate spending, be impressed by the high salaries that would be required to make such a hire)? Luring King aboard could even spur a return to the popular CNN interview concept led by Larry King. Might Zucker, who has experimented with a CNN game show and a program with ad executive Donny Deutsch, try something radical?

CNN has company. Rival MSNBC is also faced with the prospect of reconstructing of its weeknight schedule. In addition to Williams’ departure, Rachel Maddow is expected at present to give up her 9 p.m. hour next year in favor of a broader package of projects that might include a weekly program and longform projects. MSNBC executives have continued to hold out hope they can convince her to keep appearing on air regularly.

The holidays often provide time for reflection. In the wake of Cuomo’s departure, CNN could use the moment to determine its comfort level with anchors who get too much spotlight.

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