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CNN and Chris Cuomo face difficult questions after anchor’s suspension

Andrew and Chris Cuomo.Kevin Mazur/Photographer: Kevin Mazur/Getty

Anchor Chris Cuomo said Wednesday that he was embarrassed by CNN’s decision to suspend him indefinitely for his efforts earlier this year to help his brother, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, stave off a mounting sexual harassment scandal.

In his first public remarks on CNN’s decision, Cuomo, speaking on his SiriusXM radio program, acknowledged his suspension — “it hurts to even say it” — but said he understood it, adding, “I know they have a process that they think is important. I respect that process.”

For CNN and its president, Jeff Zucker, however, the questions over Cuomo’s breach of basic journalistic rules and the timing of the network’s decision to suspend him are unlikely to disappear.

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CNN said Tuesday that it would pursue a “further evaluation” of thousands of pages of new evidence released Monday by New York Attorney General Letitia James. Those documents included testimony and text messages showing that Cuomo’s role in advising the governor’s aides — already a violation of the traditional barriers between journalists and lawmakers — had been more involved and intimate than previously known.

James’ report took CNN management by surprise, according to three people familiar with internal conversations. Zucker’s decision to suspend Cuomo came so late Tuesday that the “Cuomo Prime Time” production team was already in the office preparing for that evening’s broadcast. Cuomo met in person with Zucker in the late afternoon and then addressed his staff in an emotional meeting, two of the people said.

The network declined to comment Wednesday about the exact contours of its inquiry into Cuomo, calling it an internal matter.

But CNN has no immediate plans to retain an outside law firm or forensic investigators for the review, according to a person briefed on the company’s plans, who was granted anonymity to share details of private discussions.

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The review is expected to focus on any ethical journalistic lines that Cuomo may have crossed, the person said. The network is also focused on comparing James' evidence with what the anchor had told executives about his conduct. CNN has not publicly referred to the inquiry as an investigation, instead calling it “a thorough review” that would seek “additional clarity” into the situation.

Zucker — who told staff members on a Wednesday conference call that the decision to suspend Cuomo was his own — has been juggling the controversy with a series of high-level meetings this week at CNN’s Manhattan headquarters, including a visit from the network’s potential future overseer, David Zaslav of Discovery.

For Zucker, the decision to suspend Cuomo was a clear shift after months of supporting his highest-rated anchor, even as details surfaced about Cuomo’s involvement with his brother’s response to the scandal and as some journalists inside the network raised objections.

In May, the network called Cuomo’s actions “inappropriate,” and the anchor apologized on the air. But Zucker also told CNN employees that Cuomo “is human, and these are very unique circumstances.” When records surfaced in August showing some of his exchanges with the governor’s aides, Cuomo remained on the air, only acknowledging the situation after his brother resigned.

“I tried to do the right thing, and I just want you all to know that,” he told viewers Aug. 16.

Zucker’s calculus changed this week amid a drumbeat of criticism over the new documents, which showed that Cuomo sent feedback on public statements and attempted to check the status of in-the-works news articles that could have been damaging to his brother. “Chris sends me a lot of things a lot of the time,” a former top aide to the governor, Melissa DeRosa, told investigators.

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In August, Cuomo told viewers he “never made calls to the press” about his brother’s scandal. But in sworn testimony released Monday, Cuomo said that when requested by his brother’s aides, he “would reach out to sources, other journalists, to see if they had heard of anybody else coming out.”

A representative for Cuomo did not respond to an inquiry Wednesday.

By suspending Cuomo, not terminating him, CNN left a possible path for him to make a return. On Wednesday, Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, speculated on the air that “it’s possible he’ll be back in January.”

There is precedent for a major TV host surviving a suspension. In 2015, NBC News executives removed anchor Brian Williams from “Nightly News” for six months without pay for exaggerating a story about a helicopter trip in Iraq. Few in the TV industry thought Williams could find a viable route to a comeback, and some of his own colleagues objected to his return.

But Williams slowly rebuilt his career at MSNBC, NBC’s cable news network, first as a breaking news anchor and then as an 11 p.m. host. He is now entertaining suitors for his next move after announcing last month that he would leave NBC at the end of the year.

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One of those suitors could well end up being Zucker, who is on the hunt for high-wattage talent for a new streaming service, CNN+, which is set to debut in 2022. Zucker approached Rachel Maddow about a position, although she ultimately decided to remain at MSNBC.

On his Wednesday conference call, Zucker told CNN employees that no decisions had yet been made about a temporary replacement for Cuomo in the 9 p.m. time slot. Anderson Cooper is currently stretching his 8 p.m. program by an extra hour.