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CNN prime time star Chris Cuomo won't face any discipline for having participated in strategy sessions on how his brother Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should deal with sexual harassment allegations, a decision that's causing some blowback against the news channel.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Chris Cuomo participated in a series of conference calls earlier this year that included the Democratic governor’s top aide, his communication's team, lawyers and outside advisers as Andrew Cuomo faced claims that he made inappropriate comments or touched women without their permission.
Gov. Cuomo has denied the sexual harassment allegations leveled by multiple women, including two current staffers in his office. The allegations are being investigated by the office of New York Atty. Gen. Letitia James.
The Post report said Chris Cuomo — whose nightly program "Cuomo Prime Time" has the largest audience on CNN — urged his brother not to resign and advised him to "take a defiant position" on the matter.
CNN acknowledged in a statement that Chris Cuomo participated in the discussions and called it a mistake, as a journalist being involved in politics is a fundamental breach of ethics. But a representative for the network confirmed that Cuomo will not face any internal reprimand for his actions, a decision that elicited a strong rebuke from the women's activist group UltraViolet.
“Reports that Chris Cuomo not only joined strategy calls with his brother, Governor Andrew Cuomo, on how to respond to the numerous sexual harassment allegations against him, but actively advised his brother to aggressively push back on the allegations, is deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable," Bridget Todd, communications director for UltraViolet, said in a statement.
“Make no mistake — this wasn’t just a brother talking to his brother about their lives, or even about politics," Todd added. "This was a major network news anchor advising the Governor of New York to actively push back against sexual harassment allegations and denigrate survivors of abuse by defining their calls for accountability as ‘cancel culture.'"
UltraViolet called for a suspension of Cuomo and an investigation on how his involvement in his brother's crisis may have had an impact on coverage at the network.
CNN's statement noted that Chris Cuomo has had no input in editorial decisions related to the issues Gov. Cuomo is facing.
"Chris has not been involved in CNN’s extensive coverage of the allegations against Governor Cuomo — on air or behind the scenes," the network said. "In part because, as he has said on his show, he could never be objective. But also because he often serves as a sounding board for his brother. However, it was inappropriate to engage in conversations that included members of the Governor's staff, which Chris acknowledges. He will not participate in such conversations going forward."
Cuomo offered an apology at the top of his program.
"I am family first - job second," Cuomo said. "But 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. It's not always easy...how I helped my brother also matters. When my brother's situation became turbulent being looped into calls with other friends of his and advisors that did include some of his staff, I understand why that was a problem for CNN. It will not happen again. It was a mistake, because I put my colleagues here, who I believe are the best in the business, in a bad spot. I never intended for that, I would never intend for that, and I am sorry for that."
Cuomo said he has never tried to influence his network's coverage of his brother. "I've been walled off from it," he said.
Nevertheless, Cuomo's actions puts CNN in a glass house situation. The network's commentators have often been highly critical of Fox News opinion hosts, such as Sean Hannity, who advised former President Donald Trump privately in addition to being advocates on the air.
Sam Stein, an editor for Politico and a contributor to MSNBC, said in a tweet that such a blatant conflict of interest would only be tolerated for a star anchor.
"The Chris Cuomo story is a story of power," Stein wrote. "Any junior level staffer who moonlighted as a political adviser would see their job suspended or gone. It’s also a story of editorial distinctions. At Fox, the hosts were advising Trump so often it became its own story genre."
Chris Cuomo also got a pass from CNN management in March, after reports that he was among the people close to the governor who received priority access to conronavirus testing early last year by New York state health officials as the pandemic escalated and available testing was scarce.
Cuomo was long prohibited from participating in stories about his brother, a ban that has been in effect since he joined the network in 2013. Nonetheless, when the pandemic emerged last year, CNN made an exception, allowing the Cuomo brothers to appear together as the governor had been receiving praise for his leadership role in managing the crisis in New York state.
The breezy brother-to-brother conversations worked, as the ratings for “Cuomo Prime Time” climbed during those appearances. Their last joint appearance in May 2020 had Chris Cuomo wielding a giant cotton test swab while poking fun at the governor.
But Gov. Cuomo's fortunes changed after it was revealed that his office undercounted the number of COVID-19 deaths that occurred in the state’s nursing homes.
Last year, Cuomo’s Department of Health ordered nursing homes to take COVID-positive patients, even though there was an ample supply of hospital beds to handle them.
After news of the harassment allegations broke, Chris Cuomo told viewers on March 1 that he could not cover his brother’s scandals on his program and has steered clear of them.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.