I get that we’re all desperate for levity in these terrible times, and the banter of two loving brothers is a welcome balm to the stressful media coverage. A lot of us are missing our own families right now. I understand, I do. But the conventional wisdom boosting New York’s Cuomo Brothers to hero status right now misses some problematic elements of their schtick. At risk of raining on everyone’s parade, this is a glaring conflict of interest. And that matters amidst this ongoing tragedy.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., finds himself overseeing the epicenter of a devastating pandemic. His brother, CNN “anchor” Chris Cuomo, has unfortunately contracted the virus but admirably continues hosting his primetime show from his basement. In recent weeks, the governor has sat for regular interviews about the state’s response to the virus on his brother’s show. He video conferenced Chris into one of his popular press briefings on Thursday for the sake of helping the younger Cuomo share his personal experience with the virus. Their discussions are mostly serious, but occasionally produce viral moments that some viewers seem to enjoy, arguing about their mother’s sauce or ribbing each other like only brothers can.
A Time Magazine headline declared, “The Cuomo Show Has Captivated Americans at Home.” Vogue called the brothers “an Unlikely Comedy Duo.” Twitter is aglow with friendly buzz about their regular exchanges.
Let us not forget, however, that Gov. Cuomo is overseeing his state’s response not to the prospect of mass death, but to the reality of it. The Wuhan virus has taken the lives of thousands of New Yorkers, and will tragically take the lives of more. It is wreaking havoc on the state’s economy to a degree we cannot yet fully understand. Is it really so amusing that CNN, a news outlet, is letting the governor’s own brother interview him during a deadly pandemic?
I simply do not understand how a media outlet — that takes itself seriously — allows a journalist to interview a public official who is his brother, regardless of how dispassionate or rigorous the journalist is. I know some of you find it amusing but come on.
— Dan Zak (@MrDanZak) March 31, 2020
As a one-time thing, it’s fine. But the governor is in a serious position right now. The stakes are high. The media should be scrutinizing him with heightened intensity, not giving him airtime to be interviewed frequently by his own brother, whose biases are impossible to erase. (And for good reason. They love each other.)
Even corporate media journalists were rankled by the younger Cuomo’s virtual press conference appearance. I still think that’s less egregious than CNN’s decision to let a journalistically compromised anchor repeatedly interview the man in charge of a statewide pandemic response. By the way, given the clear conflict of interest, it’s odd to see some journalists praise the schtick, particularly because they would almost certainly be less friendly if the Cuomo brothers happened to be conservatives.
A brother interviewing his brother on a self-named television news show is one thing that many don’t like. A governor interviewing his brother during an official press conference on the #Coronavirus response is quite another. Shark jumped.
— Ed O'Keefe (@edokeefe) April 2, 2020
Maybe I'm in the minority here, but isn't the governor having his brother on during an official briefing while wearing a hat promoting his own show a bit distasteful? I appreciate the levity, but…
— Caitlin Huey-Burns (@CHueyBurns) April 2, 2020
Joe DePaolo added a helpful framing to this conversation in Mediaite. “There is also no doubt that Chris is willing to unleash some stinging jabs at his brother even now — we’ve seen proof of that in these recent chats,” he wrote. “But if duty demands that Chris Cuomo deliver the knockout punch, how could he possibly be expected to ever throw it?” That’s exactly right. The audience can’t trust that Chris would ask a question that takes down his brother, even if it demanded to be asked because people’s lives are on the line. New Yorkers seem to be satisfied with the governor’s performance so far, but that doesn’t render him incapable of grave blunders that may ultimately need to be addressed.
Chris has asked his brother some tough questions, to be sure. And as a governor, you’re going to take any reasonably friendly interview you can get. But when news outlets score precious time with public officials, especially in times of crisis, the audience needs to trust that the journalists tasked with interviewing them will do so without fear or favor. That’s just impossible here.
It’s not particularly funny, and while their friendship is sweet and their interviews at least seem well-intentioned, it’s not fair to the thousands of New Yorkers suffering immense personal losses who deserve a relentless watchdog media in these times as much as ever.
This is hardly the biggest issue we have to worry about right now, that’s for sure. I pray Chris gets better and Andrew protects his state to the greatest possible extent. But I do think it’s also worth pausing to reconsider whether this is a routine we should be amplifying, or one that could use some scrutiny instead.