How CNN Betrayed Its Audience

Jeff Zucker’s alleged ethics breach torched the network’s reputation.

Jeff Zucker
Mike Coppola / Getty

Updated at 6:53 p.m. ET on Thursday, February 24, 2022.

Nearly two years ago, in spring 2020, CNN found itself with a blockbuster. The network put anchor Chris Cuomo on air interviewing his brother, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, about his state’s response to COVID-19. The string of segments made Andrew Cuomo a liberal hero, feted as the anti–Donald Trump, and the fraternal jibes between the men made for entertaining viewing.

The term blockbuster is borrowed from a massive bomb–and this one has gone off with devastating results. Andrew Cuomo was forced to step down this past August. Chris Cuomo was fired in December. CNN’s worldwide president, Jeff Zucker, has resigned. The circumstances of his departure are still unclear: He acknowledged failing to disclose a relationship with a subordinate, though the liaison seems to have been an open secret, and some CNN staffers question the official narrative. Zucker’s romantic partner, Allison Gollust, CNN’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, has also resigned. Amid the murk, new details about the Cuomo mess have slowly emerged.

Even at the time of the Cuomo COVID interviews, it was clear that CNN was making a journalistic error by choosing ratings over responsible journalism. The decision to have Cuomo the anchor interview Cuomo the governor was always a blatant conflict of interest—charming, but a betrayal of the mission of accountability. New reporting suggests the rot was even deeper: Zucker and Gollust, who had served as Andrew Cuomo’s communications director in 2012 and 2013, were reportedly in regular contact with the governor, pressing him to speak to CNN and discussing interview topics with him ahead of time. In other words, CNN wasn’t just passively accepting the Cuomo Brothers Show in a cynical ploy for ratings. Its top executives were instigating the whole fiasco.

The New York Times reported on Friday that Gollust and Andrew Cuomo would discuss what the governor would say before he went on air, and then Gollust would pass the ideas along to producers. The exchanges have reportedly emerged in the internal investigation that has led to both Zucker’s and Gollust’s departures. Zucker was aware of the communications, the Times reported. The Washington Post previously reported that Zucker and Gollust had courted Cuomo for the interviews.

Zucker has said through a spokesperson that he spoke with Andrew Cuomo about the interviews but denied allegations in other outlets that he had coached the governor on what to say. The same spokesperson, speaking on Gollust’s behalf, told the Times that Gollust’s conversations with Cuomo were appropriate.

Gollust’s and Zucker’s defenders contend that their conversations with Andrew Cuomo were entirely defensible—even standard operating procedure for television news—and that they are the victims of an internal power struggle or of a revenge plot by Chris Cuomo. But given Gollust’s past work for Cuomo, CNN’s choice of Chris Cuomo as interviewer, and the softball questions Andrew Cuomo received, viewers could reasonably wonder whether Gollust and Zucker were more interested in juicing ratings than in serving the public by holding officials accountable. The details may never be entirely clear, but media ethics is often about avoiding anything that might give the wrong impression. Journalists are trained to avoid actual conflicts of interest and perceived conflicts of interest in equal measure.

The problem with Chris Cuomo interviewing his brother was easy to see. No one can be expected to conduct an impartial, levelheaded interview with a sibling that will serve viewers in a time of confusion and need. For this reason, Chris Cuomo had for long stretches been barred from interviewing or covering his brother, a sensible precaution.

Zucker also had a conflict of interest: He and the governor were friendly. Some social relationships of this sort are regrettable but probably unavoidable. Powerful, well-connected people in New York are bound to know one another, and sometimes they’ll hit it off. That’s why a best practice for journalists is to avoid matters involving their close friends or relations. In most newsrooms, it is a sacred value that the business side of the company be kept separate from editorial operations—a necessary division that protects editorial independence and integrity.

If the conversations that CNN executives had with Andrew Cuomo are indeed standard operating procedure for television news, that’s more damning than most of the harshest criticism directed against the medium. To recap: They were allegedly conferring with a friend and former boss about interview topics before parading him on air for a puffy public-relations exercise. That robbed the public of the opportunity to hear Andrew Cuomo answer tough questions—and as it happened, Cuomo’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic had serious flaws, which only became clear later. Most notably, New York undercounted deaths in nursing homes, then aggressively tried to hide the true numbers.

We know that CNN as a corporation understood the problems in these conflicts of interest, because the network barred Chris Cuomo from discussing political strategy with the governor’s aides (though it allowed him to counsel his brother directly). Later, it became clear that Chris Cuomo had not only broken those rules but also worked to gather information on his brother’s behalf. CNN said this was new information and fired him, a decision I believe was correct. The allegations against Zucker and Gollust are possibly even worse: The job of top executives is to direct the entire company and to enforce the rules. Besides, unlike Chris, they don’t have the excuse of blood relationship trumping work.

The CNN mess is reminiscent of another recent media scandal. Texts revealed by the U.S. House select committee investigating Trump’s attempt to overturn the election show Fox News’s Sean Hannity acting as an adviser to the president and his aides, even as he covered the aftermath of the election on television. Worse, Hannity seems to have been downplaying the insurrection on air, even as he expressed horror privately. (CNN’s media team has done an especially good job of dissecting the problems with Hannity’s behavior.)

When Fox News is shown to have been engaged in this kind of conflict of interest, no one is surprised, nor are many of the networks’ viewers scandalized. They are aware that they’re tuning in to what is essentially a party organ—though this does not make the betrayal of the duty to inform the audience any less consequential.

At CNN, the breach is graver. The network holds itself up as better than Fox News—and indeed, in many ways it is. But the allegations against Zucker and Gollust undermine the work of CNN’s excellent journalists. And because CNN is a dominant player in the mainstream media, the allegations also undermine the rest of the press. They create the impression that other outlets are as corrupt as Fox News, and give media skeptics an excuse to dismiss important reporting. If CNN wants to live up to its billing as “the most trusted name in news,” the network has some cleanup to do after this disaster.

This article has been updated to clarify the circumstances of Chris Cuomo’s firing from CNN.