WaPo media critic: Say, why isn't Chris Cuomo covering his brother's scandal?

Rest assured that Erik Wemple intends this as a rhetorical question. The answer is as obvious now as it was for the past year — covering one’s family member creates conflicts of interest for journalists that can’t possibly be explained away. The problem, as Wemple pointed out last night, is that CNN didn’t even bother to explain them away while Chris Cuomo spent 2020 acting as Andrew Cuomo’s publicist on his COVID-19 response.

Now that the nursing home scandal has swallowed up that “Love Gov” narrative, Wemple notices that the younger Cuomo hasn’t said a word about the elder Cuomo on his “news” show:

Just hours before “Cuomo Prime Time” aired, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a news conference to address his state’s nursing-home scandal. Under his leadership, the state has shown a staggering lack of transparency regarding the extent of coronavirus-related deaths in New York nursing homes. “We should have provided more information faster,” said Cuomo in the press briefing, which addressed an undercount of nursing-home deaths in the state.

That story — the hottest on the covid beat on Monday — didn’t make the cut on “Cuomo Prime Time.” Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise: Chris Cuomo and Andrew Cuomo are brothers, and journalists can’t reliably cover their brothers.

Except that Chris Cuomo did cover his brother, famously, during the early months of the pandemic. As the coronavirus spread around the country, Andrew Cuomo turned in more than 10 appearances on “Cuomo Prime Time.” The heartwarming moments stick out: In May, Chris Cuomo presented a gigantic test swab to joke about the governor’s televised coronavirus test. They laughed about their parents quite a bit, too. At the end of one appearance, Chris Cuomo thanked his brother for coming on the air. “Mom told me I had to,” replied the governor. The TV host rolled his eyes.

Here’s the video with Chris Cuomo’s hard-edged questioning of his brother’s nasal swab test, for those who don’t recall it:

While CNN allowed the Cuomo Brothers to conduct this vaudeville act as “news,” this is what CNN wasn’t covering at the time. Andrew had covered up an explosion of COVID-19 deaths among nursing-home residents, even though health experts warned that his policy forcing those facilities to readmit COVID-positive patients would result in excess mortality rates:

Between March 25 and May 10, 2020, an advisory from Cuomo’s Department of Health (DOH) compelled nursing homes to readmit hospitalized Covid-19 patients without checking if they still had active infection. Health experts cautioned that the policy could lead to additional deaths by introducing infected people into closed facilities where those most vulnerable to the disease—the elderly and infirm—live. Cuomo’s responses ranged from the devil—aka the Trump administration—made me do it; to we didn’t force anything—facilities had discretion to turn down admissions; to “nothing to see here”—the policy didn’t increase the number of deaths; to “who cares” where they died.

Cuomo repeatedly and falsely claimed that the policy was directed by federal guidance. A July DOH report (now revised) also claimed that the nursing-home admission policy was following federal guidance that homes “should accept residents with COVID-19.” In fact, the federal guidance was permissive, not proscriptive: “A nursing home can accept a resident diagnosed with COVID-19 . . . as long as the facility can follow CDC guidance for Transmission-Based Precautions” (emphasis added).

The DOH report also claimed the state never “directed that a nursing home must accept a COVID-positive person” (emphasis in original). In fact, the March 25 advisory explicitly said that nursing homes “must comply” with the return of hospital patients. Nursing homes were instructed that they could not deny admission “based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19” (underlining in original) and were “prohibited” from testing prospective admissions for Covid-19. …

This past week, the DOH finally responded to the AP’s May FOIL request, revealing that more than 9,000 Covid-19 patients had been admitted to nursing facilities pursuant to its March 25 directive—43 percent higher than what the state had previously disclosed.

Finally, the most damaging disclosure was a leaked recording from February 10, in which a top Cuomo aide admitted to Democratic lawmakers that the administration hid the true numbers of nursing-home deaths for political reasons. The administration had worried that federal investigators would use these numbers against the governor. A February 11 addendum to the original DOH report now acknowledges that nursing-home deaths account for 35 percent of New York’s Covid-19 deaths.

Wemple points out that CNN has covered the scandal on other shows, but that it still has to answer for allowing Chris to essentially provide a propaganda platform for Andrew. Coverage by other hosts in their slots doesn’t absolve CNN from the silence in the Cuomo Brothers slot. So far, though, CNN still won’t answer for it:

We asked CNN about all of this. A network spokesperson passed along this statement:

“The early months of the pandemic crisis were an extraordinary time. We felt that Chris speaking with his brother about the challenges of what millions of American families were struggling with was of significant human interest. As a result, we made an exception to a rule that we have had in place since 2013 which prevents Chris from interviewing and covering his brother, and that rule remains in place today. CNN has covered the news surrounding Governor Cuomo extensively.”

The CNN statement is an expression of the problem itself: You can’t nullify a rule when your star anchor’s brother is flying high, only to invoke it during times of scandal. You just can’t.

CNN wants to eat their cake and have it too. When building a preferred narrative, no rules need apply. When that narrative blows up in their face, suddenly those rules require them not to admit to malpractice or outright propagandizing. As long as CNN refuses to address that deliberate choice to commit journalistic malpractice and promote Andrew Cuomo while evidence built of his own malpractice, CNN’s coverage will carry a stigma that won’t go away. Nor should it, as unfair as it might be to other hosts and reporters who don’t commit that kind of malpractice.