When Andrew Cuomo went on CNN Monday morning to discuss the latest developments in the Metro-North train derailment that left four people dead, he was interviewed by his little brother, Chris, one of the network's many, many — innumerable? — anchors. More than a few "eyebrows were raised" at the conflict of interest this presented for Chris Cuomo, but the newsman, along with various pundits and colleagues in the media world, responded with eyebrow movements of their own. Here's why they think the interview was fine, and why they are wrong.
"This was all fact based and it didn't involve [Governor Cuomo] in terms of the accountability."
In an interview with fellow CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin last night, Chris Cuomo argued that the interview did not present a conflict of interest because his brother, Governor Cuomo, was a mere information-delivery device, not a participant in the story itself:
"This was all fact based and it's something that that didn't involve [Governor Cuomo] in terms of the accountability. See, that changes everything. If there's something that's been done wrong at the state level that he deserves to get hammered and has to answer for it, right? I wouldn't put myself in that position."
This is an odd assertion. Governor Cuomo wasn't at the controls of the train when it derailed, but the MTA, which runs Metro-North, is a state agency. The governor of New York appoints its chairman, its CEO, and five of its nineteen board members. The governor also writes the budget that allocates the MTA's funding. It's not clear why Chris Cuomo feels safe declaring that Governor Cuomo is totally unaccountable for the derailment while the investigation is still ongoing, as if this were an indisputable truth.
Cuomo might have asked his brother, for example, why the MTA — again, a state agency — has not yet installed congressionally mandated Positive Train Control systems in its trains, which experts say could have prevented the derailment by automatically applying the brakes when the motorman reportedly fell asleep. It would have been somewhat of a tough question for Cuomo to ask his brother, which is not to say that that's why Cuomo didn't ask it. But a conflict of interest represents the potential for such biased decision-making, not the clear evidence of its existence.
The interview wasn't about "politics."
Cuomo further asserted on CNN last night that he would never have conducted the interview if it were related to "politics" or his brother's "political career." Greta Van Sustern of Fox News seemed to agree with this line of reasoning, writing, "It is also noteworthy that this was about a train crash and not about the Governor running for re-election." But it's impossible to separate a politician's actions from politics. If Governor Cuomo's response to a crisis is cast in a positive light on national television, that obviously helps his political career. And the person interviewing the governor is in a position to cast him in a more positive or negative light.
Cuomo isn't the only one interviewing a member of his family!
"Family members have interviewed each other before," Mediaite's Joe Concha pointed out yesterday. "Fox’s Greg Kelly interviewed his NYPD Commissioner father Ray Kelly on Fox-5 (an NYC Fox affiliate) about a terror arrest."
Yeah, that happened — and it was a flagrant conflict of interest! ("Critics have attacked Mr. Kelly’s professional association with his father time and time again as a conflict of interest," the New York Times' Brian Stelter reported in January.)
It's a little hard to claim that Chris Cuomo would obviously treat Andrew Cuomo with complete objectivity when CNN itself isn't shy about exploiting the relationship for its benefit, as Brooke Baldwin flat-out admitted last night. "You have this unique relationship with Andrew Cuomo which has helped us lead this story, and have all this crucial information," Baldwin said to Chris Cuomo. "And so we at CNN are very grateful for that relationship."
Cuomo mentioned that they were related!
"What could be more obvious here? They are both named Cuomo! And if that is not enough, per the article linked below, CNN’s Cuomo said 'Now obviously to those who don’t know, we are family, so we’ve been talking about this a lot.'”
Why does this matter? Of course Chris Cuomo had to provide a disclaimer about his relationship with Andrew Cuomo, but that information does nothing to negate the conflict of interest. In fact, kind of the opposite — it informs the viewers that a conflict of interest is present. That's the whole point of the disclaimer!
Regardless, there was no evidence of favoritism.
"His interview, by the way, was just as substantive an interrogation about the accident, if not more so, as any of the others his brother did on the morning shows," writes the Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove. "Critics say my intv no diff than others, but still come at me," Chris Cuomo himself tweeted.
This gets at another central question: Even if the conflict of interest existed (and it obviously did), is there any evidence that it actually ended up affecting how Chris Cuomo conducted the interview? Well, if you were to look for examples of possible favoritism, they're not hard to find. For example:
"When you went to the scene, you got there very quickly yesterday, what was it like?"
You reacted very quickly to this crisis. You are really on the ball, Governor.
"All right, Governor, thank you for joining us. It is no small irony that just in August you were training with the National Guard for these types of things, who knew in a few months later, the training would have to put in practice."
You were very wise to prepare for accidents like these, Governor.
Again, maybe Chris Cuomo would have offered these flattering, completely unprovoked asides had he been speaking with, say, Governor Carl Paladino. But we don't know, and if it were anyone else interviewing Andrew Cuomo, we wouldn't have to wonder about CNN's impartiality. And that's the whole point.