CNN fires Chris Cuomo amid inquiry into his efforts to aid his brother

Chris Cuomo at his office at CNN in New York, Dec 12, 2017. Cuomo was suspended indefinitely by the network on Nov 30, 2021, in the wake of new details about his efforts to assist his brother, Andrew Cuomo, the former governor of New York, amid a cascade of sexual harassment accusations that led to the governor’s resignation. Krista Schlueter/The New York Times
Star anchor Chris Cuomo was fired by CNN on Saturday, completing a stunning downfall for the network’s top-rated anchor amid an ongoing inquiry into his efforts to help his brother, Andrew Cuomo, then-governor of New York, stave off sexual harassment accusations.

Until last month, Cuomo had enjoyed the support of CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, and he faced no discipline for his behind-the-scenes strategizing with Andrew Cuomo’s political aides, a breach of basic journalistic norms.

But the anchor was suspended Tuesday after a new batch of testimony and text messages, released by the New York attorney general, revealed a more intimate and engaged role in his brother’s political affairs than the network said it had previously known. CNN said Saturday it had enlisted outside counsel to review Cuomo’s actions, a sign that its inquiry quickly entered a more serious stage.

“We retained a respected law firm to conduct the review, and have terminated him, effective immediately,” CNN said in a statement. “While in the process of that review, additional information has come to light. Despite the termination, we will investigate as appropriate.”

The network declined to elaborate on any new facts that had emerged.

As the gregarious and sometimes combative host of CNN’s 9 p.m. hour Eastern time, Cuomo was at the peak of a broadcast journalism career that he had forged outside of his famed political family. But it was the troubles of his brother, who resigned the governorship in August, that ultimately embroiled Cuomo in a controversy that precipitated his dismissal.

“This is not how I want my time at CNN to end, but I have already told you why and how I helped my brother,” Chris Cuomo said in a statement Saturday. “So let me now say as disappointing as this is, I could not be more proud of the team at ‘Cuomo Prime Time’ and the work we did as CNN’s #1 show in the most competitive time slot.”

Documents released Nov. 29 revealed that the anchor offered advice on Andrew Cuomo’s public statements and made efforts to uncover the status of pending articles at other news outlets, including The New Yorker and Politico, concerning harassment allegations against the governor.

Zucker — who had been steadfast in backing Cuomo, at one point saying the anchor was “human” and facing “very unique circumstances” — informed the anchor Saturday that he was being fired. “It goes without saying that these decisions are not easy, and there are a lot of complex factors involved,” Zucker wrote in a memo to CNN staff.

The spectacle of a high-profile anchor advising his powerful politician brother amid scandal was a long-standing headache for many CNN journalists, who privately expressed discomfort at actions that, in their view, compromised the network’s credibility. CNN anchor Jake Tapper went public with his concerns in May, telling The New York Times that his colleague had “put us in a bad spot,” adding, “I cannot imagine a world in which anybody in journalism thinks that that was appropriate.”

Even so, the timing of Cuomo’s firing, on a Saturday at 5 p.m. Eastern, caught many members of the CNN newsroom off guard.

The network’s decision earlier in the week to suspend Cuomo had left open the possibility that he might return to the channel at a later date. CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, speculated on air Wednesday that it was “possible he’ll be back in January.”

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The network said Tuesday it would begin an internal review of Cuomo’s conduct. But its executives had not immediately planned to hire an outside law firm, according to a person familiar with the network’s internal decision-making process. That plan changed in recent days, and CNN declined Saturday to identify the name of the law firm it had retained.

Cuomo has retained public relations executive Ronn Torossian, a veteran New York operator who is an ally of New York City’s mayor-elect, Eric Adams.

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Before joining CNN, Cuomo spent years as an on-air correspondent, covering wildfires, shooting rampages and war zones, most prominently at ABC News. He was one of Zucker’s first major hires after he became CNN’s president in 2013. A morning show, “New Day,” was organized in part around Cuomo’s bombastic, fast-talking on-air personality.

The awkwardness of his relationship with Andrew Cuomo — who was among the most powerful Democratic politicians in the country — became apparent almost immediately: In 2013, the network was criticized after Chris Cuomo twice interviewed his brother on “New Day.”

CNN showed less concern about any ethical issues in 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

By then, Cuomo had moved to prime time, beating out other prominent hosts such as Tapper for the coveted 9 p.m. slot. “Cuomo Prime Time” became CNN’s highest-rated hour, although it regularly attracted fewer viewers than competitors on Fox News and MSNBC.

As governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo was a leading national figure in the pandemic response. Chris Cuomo began interviewing him in prime time, and their teasing banter and emotional conversations became a hit with viewers. Ratings surged further after Chris Cuomo contracted the virus; he continued broadcasting, and interviewing his brother, from quarantine in the basement of his Long Island home. Zucker praised the segments for their “authenticity and relatability and vulnerability.”

“That’s what the brothers Cuomo are giving us right now,” Zucker told the Times in April 2020.

The next year, as Andrew Cuomo was facing a growing number of sexual harassment accusations, Chris Cuomo recused himself from reporting on the scandal, leaving a prime-time hole in CNN’s coverage of what was turning out to be a national news story.

At the same time, away from the anchor desk, Chris Cuomo was participating in strategy sessions with the governor’s top aides. It also emerged that Andrew Cuomo had arranged for his brother’s COVID tests to receive priority treatment by the state. CNN did not discipline Chris Cuomo and at one point offered the anchor a leave of absence if he wished to more formally help his brother.

After Andrew Cuomo resigned, Chris Cuomo defended himself on the Aug. 16 episode of his program. “I’m not an adviser, I’m a brother,” the anchor said. “I never attacked nor encouraged anyone to attack any woman who came forward. I never made calls to the press about my brother’s situation.”

But the new batch of testimony and text messages suggested that Cuomo did function as an adviser and did reach out to journalists. “When asked, I would reach out to sources, other journalists, to see if they had heard of anybody else coming out,” he told investigators.

On May 20, Cuomo began his CNN program by apologizing to viewers about his conversations with his brother’s political team, declaring himself “family first, job second.”

“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,” Cuomo said then. “It’s not always easy.”

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