Should Chris Cuomo Survive His CNN Suspension?

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While Chris Cuomo’s future with CNN is uncertain after the network suspended him indefinitely on Tuesday, media and journalism experts wonder if the primetime host should return at all given the severity of what they call ethical missteps in using his position to help his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, battle sexual harassment accusations.

During an appearance on CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday, Brian Stelter suggested that the network might try to wait out the bad press surrounding Cuomo over the next few weeks: “It’s possible he’ll be back in January.”

To many journalism professors and media observers, the question isn’t whether Chris Cuomo will return to his 9 p.m. PT primetime slot on CNN, but whether he should.

CNN did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“CNN will come to realize it cannot retain Chris Cuomo as an employee,” Michael Toebe, PR specialist at Reputation Quality, told TheWrap. “For his marketability and financial return on investment for the network, Cuomo has become a public relations and media liability.”

The Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins pointed to how Cuomo fell short of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Not only did Cuomo not disclose the full extent of what he was doing to CNN — as the Tuesday statement from the network said — but he went too far in trying to support his brother by trying to use his journalism connections to dig up information about Andrew Cuomo’s accusers, as well as determine if further accusations or stories were coming down the pipeline.

“It was unnecessary for him to be that involved in his brother’s campaign and in political business,” Tompkins told TheWrap. “His brother’s got plenty of advisers around who certainly know how to do their jobs, so this isn’t one of those instances where Chris Cuomo had to be involved.”

“This isn’t like what happens when someone in your family is deathly ill or something and you’ve got to be there by their side because you’re the caretaker. That’s not what this is. This is, ‘You chose to get involved in a political story of extreme interest and a story that your network was covering and you didn’t tell your network that you were doing that.’ That’s problematic,” Tompkins said.

The public, Tompkins added, “needs to understand who they’re listening to.” When a primetime reporter is advising a politician, it’s hard for viewers to know if they’re listening to a political operative or a journalist, he said, and “you can’t have it both ways.”

The rules of journalism were established for these precise reasons — and experts say there should not be exceptions even when it comes to family. Still, David Greenberg, professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, believes Cuomo acted improperly in a unique situation.

“It is not too often that a major broadcaster’s brother is a leading national politician facing a political crisis,” Greenberg told TheWrap. “So it is entirely possible that Cuomo could regain his standing with viewers. Other newscasters such as Brian Williams have come back from much worse.”

In 2015, NBC News’ Brian Williams was blasted over his embellished reporting in 2006 on the Israel and Hezbollah conflict. He was later suspended for six months by NBC News for misrepresenting events that occurred in covering the Iraq War. He returned to the air later that year — but demoted to breaking news anchor for MSNBC, where he successfully built a following. Last month, he said he would be leaving his role anchoring the 11 p.m. hour after his contract expired.

“The bigger question,” Greenberg said, “is whether CNN wants to continue with overtly partisan programming in its evening lineup or go back to shows that include multiple political perspectives.” And given Discovery’s impending takeover of CNN parent WarnerMedia next year, it’s possible that the network could change direction under new leadership.

Another factor for CNN to consider is the erosion in Cuomo’s popularity as this scandal has dragged on. Since Andrew Cuomo resigned as New York’s governor in August, Chris Cuomo has also seen a steady slide in viewership. “Cuomo Prime Time” had its lowest-rated month ever in total viewers November, according to Nielsen Media Research ratings data. The program averaged a total of 774,000 viewers in November, of whom 170,000 were in the advertiser-coveted 25 to 54 age demographic.

By comparison, MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” brought in a total average of 1.981 million viewers, with an average of 260,000 in the demo. Cuomo, who had spent much of this year as CNN’s highest-rated primetime anchor, was also bested by “Anderson Cooper 360” last month.

Toebe said he expects a further erosion in Cuomo’s popularity, and suggested that some advertisers may be reluctant to associate their brand with a tarnished celebrity host. “It’s scandalous and like it or not, guilt by association will take place in the minds of other media organizations, advocates against sexual harassment and the court of public opinion,” he said. “Advertisers certainly don’t want their names connected to anything that might be viewed by reporters or a company’s market as appalling support, enabling and poisonous.” That said, there have yet been no major calls for ad boycotts of Cuomo’s show or CNN.