Broader implications of Chris Cuomo’s departure from CNN
Cable news “anchor” Chris Cuomo at long last got the gate from CNN. Right-leaning detractors are thrilled the brash and showy prime-time talker finally got his comeuppance. But in a micro sense, Cuomo’s departure means little in the media landscape, even at CNN. His ratings had deteriorated and his agenda-driven shtick had run its course.
There is something to be learned, however, from the Cuomo/CNN screwup, if the news industry is willing to do some soul searching on a broader scale.
Cuomo’s departure should be viewed more generally than just an accumulation of missteps that CNN could no longer tolerate. This fiasco needs to be assessed in the context of the news profession’s limitations and conventional wisdoms, which no longer serve the citizens’ information needs in a democracy.
Journalism has always had a casual relationship with codes of ethics, but they have been established for good reason by reputable organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association. CNN’s management surely overlooked these standards in its handling of Cuomo, acting like it had never heard of the concept of conflict of interest.
CNN looked the other way as Cuomo interviewed his brother governor multiple times during the early days of the COVID-19 story. The segments served as political PR stunts for a governor with possible presidential aspirations and a book to sell. Other segments ventured into stand-up comedy, with jokes and props about COVID-19 testing. In the midst of the national COVID-19 crisis, this demented New York “bros” routine was not the least bit funny. Given CNN’s permission for such editorial nonsense, it is little wonder Chris Cuomo felt bulletproof, so to speak, and saw no barriers to further pushing ethical boundaries when he immersed himself in his brother’s management of harassment allegations.
While Cuomo finally paid the price for brazen ethical lapses, the news industry should consider that shenanigans similar to what put Chris Cuomo on the bus to journalism Siberia are happening elsewhere in the industry.
Cuomo is hardly the only “anchor” on cable or broadcast prone to mixing a bit of news with entertainment. He’s not the only news personality getting paid mega-money to the point journalistic gumption goes out the door. He’s not the only celebrity mouth who shoehorns a few facts into a conjured narrative to suit his own opinions, conveniently omitting context or details that might get in the way.
The electronic media’s mishandling of countless stories has led to national confusion and cultural polarization. Stories from Waukesha to Rittenhouse to Smollett were handled not to inform the citizenry but to work them. Professional standards found in journalism codes of ethics could have helped guide the nation’s news agenda, but seem instead to have no traction with the news industry’s executives.
The nation’s news consumers are savvy enough to know when they are being underserved. Media credibility studies underscore the public’s disappointment. Only a third of Americans have any trust in political news they receive, according to Rasmussen Reports. Gallup surveys mirror that dismal result, with public confidence in media near record lows.
Citizens with such low opinions of the journalism profession will either stop consuming news or rely on getting news from social media — both inadequate alternatives for a healthy democracy.
It’s pretty safe to say what happened with Cuomo could not have happened when traditional journalism standards prevailed at CBS with Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, or at ABC with Frank Reynolds, or even in CNN’s early days with Bernard Shaw. Doing responsible journalism is difficult, but it shouldn’t be impossible, as long as news executives keep ethics codes front and center. Cuomo eventually paid the price for his lapses, but others in the hierarchy throughout the profession should also be held accountable for greenlighting obvious conflicts of interest.
It will take visionary leadership from the top of news organizations to regain public trust.
Journalism leaders must prove to news consumers that the interests of the public are foremost, not the interests of the corporate, government or entertainment establishments. Perhaps Cuomo’s case study can prompt a broad reinvention of the news industry, but that can only happen if journalism’s leaders can first recognize that they helped create the conditions under which Cuomo made his mistakes.
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.
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