Stelter: Hey, who at CNN could have foreseen this ethics crisis with the Cuomos?

“You gotta have boundaries,” Brian Stelter tells Stephen Colbert at one point, which has to be the greatest straight line the CBS Late Night host has ever been handed. One has to wonder why no one at CNN had boundaries when it came to the Cuomo Brothers and the propaganda hour Chris Cuomo staged on CNN’s prime-time hour for weeks on end. Colbert presses Stelter on this point, only to have CNN’s chief media critic claim that this has never been addressed in the annals of journalistic ethics.

Really?

When Colbert added, incredulously, “Really? What are the boundaries?” Stelter went on to defend his network for basically saying there is no reasonable expectation that the Cuomo brothers wouldn’t speak. The host has been similarly pilloried this week for giving CNN what Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple called a series of “wet kisses” on his Reliable Sources show this past Sunday morning.

But as Colbert pointed out, Chris Cuomo “didn’t talk about his brother once the trouble started,” something Stelter said came down straight from CNN management. “Then why didn’t they rule that way when his brother was on pretty much every night during the COVID crisis?” Colbert asked. “That seems like an odd conflict of rules.”

Stelter would only say that it’s “really complicated,” adding that there is “no page for this” situation in the “journalism ethics book” and that it is “definitely awkward” for CNN.

The same could be said for his unfortunately-timed appearance on The Late Show.

Stelter’s claim is, to quote our current president, utter malarkey. One has to wonder whether Stelter has even cracked the binding on a journalism ethics textbook, let alone the regulations regarding payola. Chris Cuomo received preferential treatment in the form of extraordinary access to state health resources courtesy of his brother the governor, whom he then promoted on-air without disclosing the favors Chris received. Would Chris have received those favors anyway? Yes, but as a broadcaster, he is required to disclose any remuneration he receives from his guests, and that certainly qualifies.

That’s in FCC regulations. What about the annals of journalistic ethics? Here’s the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code, a brief document from which I’ll quote:

  • Journalists should:
    Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality,
    or may damage credibility.

How does that apply to the idea of allowing a broadcast news host to “interview” his brother, the sitting governor of New York, not once but on multiple occasions? How does the second bullet point apply to allowing said host to provide strategic political consultation to his brother the governor?

But let’s get to the idea of this situation not existing in textbooks. I decided to purchase a media-ethics textbook, Media Ethics: Issues and Cases by Lee Wilkins, Chad Painter, and Philip Paterson, now in its tenth edition. Published just this year, the new edition has a section dedicated to the case of the Cuomos and CNN, thanks to the debacle of last year’s propaganda-fest. Lo and behold, we find out that CNN actually did recognize the conflict of interest … until their interests turned more partisan and monetary (page 112 on the Kindle):

It was during one of these briefings that Gov. Cuomo announced that his younger brother Chris had tested positive for the virus and would ride it out in his basement while continuing to anchor his CNN news show, a decision that Gov. Cuomo called courageous. Multiple interviews resulted. Chris Cuomo’s ratings doubled.

CNN had barred Chris from interviewing Andrew from 2013 to 2020 (though he had interviewed him prior to 2013). However, that restriction was lifted in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit New York.

So … what happened? Did the pages get ripped out of the ethics books in CNN’s employee lounge? The book doesn’t mention that Chris found out about his condition through the favors that Andrew granted in access to testing and care, favors that the governor spread around to other family members and friends. That abuse-of-power scandal got exposed by journalists at the Albany Times-Union who didn’t treat Gov. Cuomo like a family member, but rather an elected public official accountable for his actions. To the extent that Chris and CNN allowed Andrew to turn that prime-time hour into a propaganda slot and especially given the profit CNN derived from it, that eclipsed any interest at CNN in performing actual journalism — and arguably made it harder for real reporters at real news outlets to do the heavy lifting in exposing Gov. Cuomo’s many scandals.

Stelter should change his job title before making any other public statements on CNN’s handling of the Cuomos. His business card should read “media relations,” not “media critic.”