Why Does CNN Let Chris Cuomo Interview His Brother?

CNN is an entertainment network with a news division attached

On Wednesday night, CNN’s Chris Cuomo had a thought: his brother’s nose is pretty big.

"Is it true," Chris said, "this was the actual swab that was being used to fit up that double barreled shotgun that you have mounted on the front of your pretty face?"

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, replied that he, in fact, had a “little button nose.”

“It extended my naval cavity,” Andrew Cuomo said of the coronavirus test he took on live TV.

And so they went. This is what the brothers Cuomo do, after all. Cuomo Prime Time has been must-see TV for a while, with booming ratings accompanying the brothers’ good-natured ribbing and faux-drama. Chris got sick with COVID-19, remember, and his big brother was there to make that good TV, too. Sometimes, little brother will ask big brother if he’s going to run for president. Once, little brother asked big brother, earnestly, how he kept “doing the right thing?”

None of it, obviously, is journalism. Chris Cuomo is an opinion host, a talking head, a pundit, not to be confused with the CNN reporters who go out into the field and gather information. CNN, though, fashions itself as a house of journalism. Having one brother interview another brother is serious journalistic malpractice. It is an obvious conflict of interest. Liberal pundits would cry into their keyboards if Donald Trump Jr. scored a Fox show to interview his father every week. Chris should recuse himself from all interviews with Andrew. Once upon a time, in a very different era, he actually was criticized for doing it.

What’s the big deal? Isn’t it good TV? Why be such a spoilsport? Well, when a brother interviews a brother, the public isn’t treated to difficult, important questions. Chris Cuomo is not asking Andrew Cuomo why he waited until March 22 to impose a shelter in place order on New York, three weeks after the state confirmed its first COVID-19 case. Chris Cuomo isn’t asking Andrew Cuomo why, until May 10, he was forcing nursing homes to readmit residents who had tested positive for COVID-19 and denying PPE requests from nursing home staff. Chris Cuomo isn’t asking Andrew Cuomo why he blames density for New York’s 20,000+ deaths when far denser cities across the world have managed to keep the virus in check. Chris Cuomo isn’t asking Andrew Cuomo about a new Columbia University study that showed, definitively, imposing social distancing measures earlier can save many thousands of lives. Chris Cuomo isn’t asking Andrew Cuomo about looming budget cuts to K-12 schools, CUNY and SUNY, mass transit, and hospitals.

You get the idea.

But it’s important, when discussing CNN, to understand what the network actually represents in 2020. CNN is not really a news network, just as Fox News is not really a news network. CNN is an entertainment network with a news division attached. Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, is a former NBC executive who signed up a B-list celebrity named Donald Trump to host The Apprentice. This was the first time Zucker was instrumental in Trump’s rise, introducing a ludicrous New York personality to a national audience. When Zucker took over CNN, the longtime network was flagging, losing badly in the ratings war to Fox News, which always had a firm identity as the de facto propaganda network for hardline conservatives in the Republican Party. Trump’s rise, in 2015, presented Zucker with an opportunity he could not pass up: nonstop promotion of Trump. In that summer and fall of 2015, as a crowded GOP field vied for the nation’s short attention span, Zucker broadcast Trump rallies live—an unprecedented move—and lent him the sort of saturation coverage rarely seen in modern political history. The irony of today’s conservatives reviling CNN—the chant of “CNN sucks” has become a Trump rally staple—is that CNN elevated Trump at the most crucial point of his campaign, when he was merely regarded as a peculiar sideshow.

CNN’s ratings, in the Trump epoch, have surged. As Fox pivoted from its initial skepticism of Trump to full-on embrace as it grew clear the conservative base lusted for the ex-Apprentice star, Zucker understood his network had to take on a new approach, particularly with hatred of Trump becoming the defining feature of mainstream Democratic politics. CNN became something of a Trump resistance and outrage network, never on the level of MSNBC, but enough that it drew the ire of Trump and became a useful foil. Zucker was happy to oblige. He knew good TV. The more Trump attacked CNN, haranguing the network on his Twitter feed and at rallies, the more the anti-Trump base would flock to his network, seeking shelter in vaguely liberal hosts like Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, and Chris Cuomo. In this set up, both Trump and Zucker win.

Chris Cuomo’s TV time with Brother Andrew is the new show, the rage of this season and beyond, as COVID-19 blots out all else. It’s entertainment. If CNN’s only real purpose is to garner ratings to charge advertisers more money, than one celebrity brother interviewing another makes all the sense in the world. What’s so pernicious about this arrangement, as Neil Postman observed decades ago, is that it still masquerades as serious news. It’s a damaging deception. Great entertainment like Star Wars or 90 Day Fiancé does not pose as accountability journalism. Chris Cuomo does. Every time he interviews his governor brother, he playacts. He tricks us. In this set up, we all lose.