The CNN prime-time host Chris Cuomo offered public-relations advice to his brother, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, after a series of sexual harassment allegations threatened the governor’s political career earlier this year, an unusual breach of traditional barriers between lawmakers and journalists.
CNN said on Thursday that the conversations were “inappropriate” and that Chris Cuomo would refrain from any more similar discussions with the governor’s staff. But the network said it would take no disciplinary action against the anchor, whose program was CNN’s highest-rated show in the first quarter of the year.
The episode has — once again — raised questions about Chris Cuomo’s ability to host a flagship cable news program while his brother is a key figure in several major political stories. Besides the harassment allegations from several women who worked on his staff, Governor Cuomo has faced criticism for obscuring the number of coronavirus deaths in New York State nursing homes. Last year, before the scandals became news, Governor Cuomo commanded a national audience with his daily briefings on the pandemic.
Governor Cuomo’s office said on Thursday that Chris Cuomo had joined several strategy calls with the governor and some of his top advisers, confirming an earlier report by The Washington Post. “There were a few phone conversations, with friends and advisers giving the governor advice,” said Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo.
Chris Cuomo apologized to viewers and his colleagues at the start of Thursday’s show for the calls with the governor’s staff, saying: “It will not happen again. It was a mistake.” But he also defended himself, saying that he “of course” gave advice to his brother and that he was “family first, job second.”
“I know where the line is,” he said of balancing being a journalist and having a politician as a brother. “I can respect it and still be there for my family, which I must.”
Earlier this year, CNN barred Chris Cuomo from participating in its news coverage of the harassment allegations lodged against his brother, who has denied any wrongdoing.
“Chris has not been involved in CNN’s extensive coverage of the allegations against Governor Cuomo — on air or behind the scenes,” CNN said in a statement. “In part because, as he has said on his show, he could never be objective. But also because he often serves as a sounding board for his brother. However, it was inappropriate to engage in conversations that included members of the governor’s staff, which Chris acknowledges.”
“Cuomo Prime Time,” which airs at 9 p.m. on the East Coast, is a news and commentary hour featuring its namesake’s colorful monologues and jousting interviews with guests. In cable news, ethics rules for commentators are often looser than those for reporters. But offering strategic counsel to a high-profile politician is frowned upon. MSNBC, for instance, stopped paying the presidential historian Jon Meacham last year after he helped write speeches for Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was then a candidate for president.
Several of Fox News’s opinion hosts actively advised President Trump during his administration; Sean Hannity even appeared with Mr. Trump at a boisterous campaign rally. But CNN’s leadership often criticized Fox News for those blurred lines, with Jeff Zucker, the CNN president, describing the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox as “state-run TV.”
After Chris Cuomo joined CNN in 2013, he mostly refrained from interviewing his brother on television. (One early exception led to some backlash.) That changed last year, after Governor Cuomo’s coronavirus updates became a national phenomenon. The brothers engaged in extended prime-time interviews about the emotional burdens of the pandemic. Viewers were riveted, especially after Chris Cuomo tested positive for the coronavirus and began speaking with his brother from isolation in a basement.
CNN leaned into the moment. “You get trust from authenticity and relatability and vulnerability,” Mr. Zucker told The New York Times last year. “That’s what the brothers Cuomo are giving us right now.”
The duo’s on-air appeal waned after Governor Cuomo began facing criticism about New York State’s response to the coronavirus. Reports also emerged this year that Chris Cuomo was among the governor’s friends and family members who received special access to government-run coronavirus testing facilities, including a police escort for samples so that they could be quickly processed.
At the time, a CNN spokesman defended the host, arguing that Mr. Cuomo was sick with the virus and “turned to anyone he could for advice and assistance, as any human being would.”
Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting.