The interesting question isn’t whether CNN’s Chris Cuomo blithely interviewing the Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo—who happens to be his brother–is a conflict of interest and an example of unethical journalism. Of course it is. The interesting question is what it tells us about the state of U.S. journalism that such an interview could even occur.
Here are two prominent provisions of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, requiring that ethical journalists…
- “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”
- “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”
Is there any question that a CNN anchor man interviewing his brother regarding anything whatsoever violates both of these? Real or perceived? Compromise integrity or damage credibility? Seriously?
Cuomo the Anchorman was interviewing Cuomo the Governor regarding the recent train accident. Conflict? Sure: the journalist is supposed to have only one duty, and that is to his audience. But Cuomo the Anchorman obviously has another, potentially confounding duty of loyalty to his interview subject, and this he must not have. It calls into question his willingness to probe and, if the facts warrant it, to ask uncomfortable questions of his subject. If Chris Cuomo’s duty to his audience unexpectedly requires him to breach his loyalty to his own brother, which will he choose? We don’t know. Perhaps Cuomo himself doesn’t know. He was obligated not to place himself in a situation where the question even needed to be asked.
The various defenses being offered are, I have to say, misguided and disturbing. The usually sensible Joe Concha of Mediaite writes that the controversy is “much ado about nothing.” His reasons are …
1. This wasn’t a political interview. Wrong. Any time a political figure has an interview, it’s political. Sarah Palin crashed and burned on a Katie Couric question about what newspapers she read. Politicians and other public figures have sparked unexpected controversies while answering seemingly innocuous questions: if that happened to Governor Cuomo, would Cuomo the Anchorman go for the jugular or try to give his flesh and blood a break?
2. Cuomo disclosed the conflict. So what? This is a common misconception: announcing “I have a conflict of interest,” which is what “The man I am interviewing is my brother (and presumably I love him)” means, is not the same as eliminating the conflict of interest, which CNN and Cuomo were obligated to do.
3. Other journalists have interviewed relatives. Oh, Joe! Tell me you didn’t write that. “Everybody does it” is no defense to unethical conduct. Joe seriously cites the fact that Chelsea Clinton, in her phony-baloney ABC News job, was allowed to interview her mother as controlling precedent. It’s precedent, all right–precedent for permitting an outrageous conflict of interest that makes a mockery of journalism.
Over at Fox, Greta Van Susteren also weighed in on Cuomo’s side, proving that she understands neither journalistic ethics nor legal ethics. “Maybe it is my background in law.,” Greta wrote on her blog, ” ….but I have no problem with Chris Cuomo interviewing his brother the NY Governor about the train crash. A conflict of interest is when some vital information is deliberately hidden from the viewer so that the viewer can’t make a decision himself/herself about the content of an interview and the potential for bias.”
Huh? A conflict of interest involves situations in which a reporter or a lawyer has divided loyalties and potentially clashing obligations to parties, entities or objectives that are or may be in conflict. Being “deliberately hidden” isn’t part of the definition at all: the duty of disclosure doesn’t change or eradicate a conflict.
If Greta is thinking like a lawyer, she should know that it is a conflict when loyalty to a client (for Cuomo it would be CNN and its viewers) “will be materially limited by …responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest…” (ABA Rule 1.7b), that is, like not making one’s brother look bad. In a legal context–Great says she’s thinking like a lawyer, remember—such a conflict can only be ignored if 1) there is informed consent by the affected client or clients, and 2) if the conflicted individual can reasonably conclude that the personal interest won’t make any difference. Well, CNN obviously consented to this unethical interview combo, but its viewers did not. Moreover, I do not think Cuomo concluding that he would choose the needs over the audience over those of his brother, should they unexpectedly come into conflict, is reasonable.
Greta should also know, with her background in law, that most states forbid lawyers from facing off in court against their spouses, children, parents or siblings. Why is that, do you think, Greta?
There is also this: lawyers do not have to be concerned about appearances of impropriety and bias, only actual impropriety or bias. That is not true of journalists. Every journalists’ code of ethics refers to appearances, as in the Society of Professional Journalists Code I quoted at the beginning: “…conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” Greta’s wrong regarding the mandated ethics of both of her professions.
Then there’s the protestations by Chris Cuomo himself, who wrote to Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast,
“Obviously I did the [interview] because it was non political, and frankly, I invite the criticism—because it exposes the hollowness of a lot of what is out there. Critics say my [interview] was no different than any other and then criticize anyway. Think about that. I get the obvious suspicion, but the media has to do better than simply cater to the obvious…and pawn off negativity as a proxy for insight.”
1. As I already stated, any interview of an elected official is political, and the original topic does not preclude raising other issues—which, I should note, a non-conflicted interviewer might well do, as in “While I have you here, Governor, how is Obamacare doing in your state? Any comments?”
2. “Critics say my [interview] was no different than any other and then criticize anyway.” Cuomo is arguing consequentialism, and “no harm, no foul.” And if you play with matches in the forest and no fire starts, it was okay to play with matches, right, Chris? The fact that your conflicted position and bias did not appear to result in any obvious breaches in the interview itself is arguing after the fact. You shouldn’t have done the interview, no matter how it worked out.
3. Pssst! Chris! Your last sentence is gibberish.
Erik Wemple, blogging at the Washington Post, on the other hand, gets it right:
There’s no such thing as a non-political interview with a sitting politician. It’s just impossible. Politicians often are defined by the way they address their constituents in times of crisis, whether it’s a train derailment, a hurricane or something even more horrible. Such events are more political than a campaign kickoff or sponsorship of a piece of legislation. Everyone at CNN knows that, too. As a matter of fact, a politician’s response to tragedy is often more politically charged than many other topics addressed by a cable-news network. So let’s just throw out that defense before trudging any further.
Watch the Cuomo-on-Cuomo interview. Yes, it’s informative. Yes, both fellows handle themselves quite well. Yes, the segment wouldn’t have generated any discussion if the last names hadn’t matched up. At the same time, it’s not hard to find spots where Chris Cuomo appears to place his thumb on the scale just a touch. In the first minute, Chris Cuomo observes how his brother “hurried down to the scene.” In the fifth minute, he repeated that pro-governor point: “When you went to the scene — you got there very quickly yesterday — what was it like?” In signing off, Chris Cuomo said, “It is no small irony that just in August, you were training with the National Guard for these types of situations. Who knew that just three months later, the training would have to be put into practice.”
To see how an interview with Gov. Cuomo might proceed at the hands of a non-family member, try this one by Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski. She doesn’t note that the governor made it to the scene quickly and pushes him about the trains’ maintenance…
Chris Cuomo doesn’t host “New Day” all by himself. Is there any reason that co-host Kate Bolduan couldn’t have handled this interview? The Erik Wemple Blog posed that question to CNN and got this response from a network source: “Chris and the [executive producer] chose to do the interview. They wanted to do the interview,” says the source, who argued that it was a “straight-on interview” and didn’t implicate matters of journalistic ethics.
That would be true, if Chris Cuomo were utterly neutral on the topic of his brother.
Oh…and the answer to that question I posed at the beginning? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? CNN’s obviously conflicted interview was allowed to occur because most modern journalists neither understand, think about, care about, nor practice ethics. “They wanted to do the interview,” that’s all. If the mainstream media wants to do something, it’s not going to let something called “ethics” stand in the way.