Critics wonder why CNN media anchor became 'de facto CNN spokesperson' amid growing Cuomo brothers scandals

Brian Stelter defends CNN’s Cuomo ‘crisis’ on late-night

‘Gutfeld!’ panel highlights media’s reaction to both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo

CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter is in an uncomfortable position. His employer has been under intense scrutiny over what to do with his colleague Chris Cuomo, who has repeatedly been swept up in the scandals plaguing Cuomo’s brother, outgoing Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“This has been a conundrum for CNN that has no perfect answer, no perfect solution,” Stelter admitted on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources.”

For months, Stelter had largely stayed silent on CNN’s primetime anchor. CNN had previously barred the younger Cuomo from interviewing the governor in a 2013 rule that the network lifted last year as the media hailed the New York Democrat a hero of the coronavirus pandemic. The Cuomo brothers conducted nearly a dozen chummy interviews that largely involved softball questions, playful banter, competing for their mother’s affection, and even prop comedy — all while the nursing home scandal began brewing. 

Fast forward to 2021, when the governor was hit by a mountain of simultaneous controversies from the coverup of nursing home deaths, questions surrounding his multi-million dollar COVID memoir, reports that the Cuomo administration allocated state resources to prioritized COVID testing for friends and family early in the pandemic. Then came the explosive sexual misconduct allegations, which ultimately resulted in the governor’s resignation. 

However, when all of these scandals began emerging, Chris Cuomo neglected to cover them, bringing into question whether the 2013 rule had been reinstated.

Chris Cuomo found himself knee-deep in trouble too as he received those COVID tests provided by his brother’s administration, was caught participating in strategy sessions with his brother’s top aides to combat the governor’s accusers, and even helped draft a statement for the alleged predator, according to the report released by New York Attorney General Letitia James. 

The host was never formally reprimanded by CNN but was told that his participation in the conference calls with the governor’s team was “inappropriate,” according to a statement the network released in May. 

Stelter, who’s widely regarded as the media’s “hall monitor,” did not express much concern about the journalistic principles that were seemingly violated by the “Cuomo Prime Time” anchor or by the network itself. Stelter even suggested that the public scolding was enough of a “punishment.”

“Telling a well-off host to hang out by the pool for a couple of weeks is not a real punishment,” Stelter said as Cuomo began his “long-planned vacation.” 

“Scolding a host in public, saying what they did was ‘inappropriate,’ that is an actual punishment,” he added.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple accused Stelter of whitewashing the CNN scandal and called for the network to investigate its star anchor. 

Many other critics have called for Cuomo’s suspension or termination like MSNBC opinion columnist Laura Bassett, arguing he must “resign from covering politics or be fired.”

“It doesn’t take a senior media reporter to know the only logical punishment here is an immediate firing,” Tom Elliott, the founder and news editor of the Grabien media company, told Fox News. 

Despite the growing uproar facing CNN, Stelter offered a full-throated defense during his appearance this week on “The Late Show,” where he was grilled by Stephen Colbert when he cited the “management ruling” that Cuomo not cover his brother’s scandals. 

“Well, then why didn’t they rule that way when his brother was on the show pretty much every night during the COVID crisis?” Colbert asked. 

“Yeah, I think it’s really complicated,” Stelter responded. 

“It seems like an odd conflict of rules,” Colbert said. 

“It is an odd conflict,” Stelter acknowledged, “but I don’t think — if we open up the journalism ethics book, there’s no page for this. The craziest set of circumstances that you can imagine, right? A governor and a brother, both in these high-profile jobs.”

Wemple pushed back at the assertion, pointing to journalism ethics guidelines from The New York Times, NPR, and even CNN that all clearly advise journalists to avoid conflicts of interest regarding relatives.

“Granted: There’s no actual ‘page’ in ethics guidelines specifying rules for a high-profile, muscular cable anchor and his brother who’s a governor. That’s why they’re guidelines,” the Washington Post media critic sharply pushed back. 

Stelter’s “Late Show” appearance was widely panned on social media, even by critics on the left. 

“It’s heartbreaking to see @brianstelter shill for Chris Cuomo,” Politico columnist Jack Shafer reacted.

“Reporting accurately on the media, and thusly, sometimes your own colleagues, is actually the gig. It requires some balls,” former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien swiped the media correspondent. 

“Brian Stelter is such a tongue-wagging company man, but so bad at it that — despite his efforts to sacrifice every last shred of dignity and personal integrity he has to defend his corporate employer — he somehow makes them look even worse. May be the creepy delivery: not sure,” journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted.

“brian stelter’s defense of his cnn colleague chris cuomo is really damaging his credibility as a media reporter,” The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern wrote.

DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall told Fox News that Stelter is in a “tough spot,” but stressed “it is largely of his own making.”

“It is really hard to defend CNN’s mishandling of Chris Cuomo’s professional lapses. So, Stelter had two sensible choices. He could have applied the standards of professional journalism and carefully pointed out CNN’s and Chris’ blunders, or he could have just recused himself from the discussion by transparently indicating he couldn’t fairly report on the matter. Instead, he is trying to explain the unexplainable, and is losing his own reputation in the process,” McCall explained. 

NewsBusters managing editor Curtis Houck insisted Stelter “has almost no reputation to speak of,” at least outside of liberal elite circles. 

“When Stephen Colbert decides he should ask basic questions that should be standard for any journalist… and Stelter can’t answer them, you know he’s surrendered any and all journalistic bona fides in the name of PR,” Houck said to Fox News. “Maintaining independence from the people you cover and not devolving into defending the people you’re tasked with holding to account is journalism 101 that you read about in Elements of Journalism. And because of that, there’s no doubt that Stelter’s antics have made this scandal even worse.”

Drew Holden, a freelance commentary writer best known for his Twitter threads calling out media hypocrisy, argued that Stelter’s whole role is to “hold the media accountable,” which he can’t do if he’s “playing PR.”

“How could anyone look at him and think that he’s capable of calling balls and strikes after missing a golden opportunity to actually do that in a really cut and dry case?” Holden asked. 

Cornell Law School professor and media critic William A. Jacobson was similarly puzzled as to why Stelter has become the “de facto CNN spokesperson” amid the Chris Cuomo scandal. 

“Yes, Stelter reports on the media, but he’s not so much reporting on CNN as he is defending it and creating distractions that make the story about Brian Stelter,” Jacobson told Fox News.

Fox News contributor Joe Concha believes Stelter is doing even more damage with his marathon defense of Chris Cuomo internally at CNN, at least among his female colleagues. 

“Remember, it’s not just that Chris Cuomo advised his brother on a political messaging matter. He literally advised on how to discredit and smear accusers of sexual harassment against the governor,” Concha said to Fox News. “Defend that to make the boss and PR team happy, alienate almost everyone else in the building in the process.” 

While Stelter has been getting plenty of bad press in recent days, Holden thinks CNN’s media correspondent will benefit from such the “insular industry” of journalism where “corporate press are friends with each other,” which “makes accountability harder.”

“I think a guy like Stelter, despite really doing something that should be professionally unforgivable, can probably survive it,” Holden told Fox News. 

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