Chris Cuomo’s ethical troubles at CNN highlight rise of ‘info-tainment’

The New York Post columnist Maureen Callahan put it succinctly: “One down. One to go.”

After New York’s governor, 앤드류 쿠 오모, finally agreed to step down this week over sexual harassment allegations, attention in American media swiftly turned to his brother Chris.

The 51-year-old CNN presenter, who allegedly earns $6m with his top-rated Cuomo Prime Time show and who despite promising to maintain journalistic distance from his brother’s travails, has been accused of serious ethical violations.

That includes apparently advising the governor and his staff during his harassment scandal and alleged cover-up of nursing home deaths; receiving special access to Covid-19 testing; and lecturing viewers for breaking his brother’s quarantine rules, despite breaking them himself. In the early months of the pandemic, the governor even appeared on Chris’s show in which they joshed around like they were in a family WhatsApp group, not an elected public official and journalist in front of thousands of viewers.

But unlike Governor Cuomo, who finally resigned after threats of impeachment, Chris Cuomo – minus a conveniently timed holiday – has faced no disciplinary action from his network and is so far due to stay on air as one of CNN’s most prominent and successful journalists.

For some, CNN’s current backing of Cuomo isn’t just another celebrity avoiding consequences; it symbolizes the worrying shift in American cable television news away from news reporting in their primetime hours. Indicative of a broader trend accelerated by the arrival of Donald Trump, cable networks have shifted towards highly profitable “info-tainment” posing as news.

It is now a sector where big-name hosts on big salaries bring in big audiences and are subject to different journalistic standards.

Fox News has long been seen as opinion-led, but even its primetime hosts – like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson – are now seen as extreme. Carlson, 특히, has made his show a vehicle for thinly concealed white nationalism and racist dog-whistling. Fox’s liberal opposite number MSNBC has also moved, with its main star – Rachel Maddow – accused of becoming so anti-Trump that she peddled unfounded conspiracy theories around Russian influence in the White House.

But the Cuomo incident seems to highlight that CNN, 와 42 world bureaus and multiple Pulitzers, has also stopped playing by “the rules” in prime time.

“I am shocked it’s gotten this far without him even receiving a suspension,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

CNN’s reputational battering during the Cuomo scandal is also seen as dangerous given the attacks endured by the network – and other US journalists – during the Trump era, where the cry of “fake news” was used to undermine public trust in journalism. The genuine ethical scandal at CNN may now serve to reinforce that broader lack of faith in US journalism.

Culver added: “It’s not just that CNN has been this essential news outlet for decades. Actions like this … tarnish other journalists. I’m more worried about individual journalists covering a state council meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, 예를 들면, getting slammed.”

Cable news shows in the US are surprisingly little watched, given their influence. Despite a rise in viewership in 2020, Fox pulled in an estimated daily audience of 3 백만, CNN 1.8 million and MSNBC 1.6 백만, 에 따르면 the Pew Center for Journalism. Yet those audiences come in a country of 330 백만명.

아직, like a lot of TV, it isn’t the number of eyes, it’s who they belong to. Cable news is obsessively followed by elected officials and their teams of aides. So it punches far above its audience weight. The host plays a special role in that. They’re a brand whose voice, personality and choice of toothpaste is beamed on to the back of your retina, selling charm and trustworthiness. And a great host can bring a broadcaster big bucks.

그러나, given they frequently share a platform with reporters and often call themselves “journalists”, should these cable stars also be subject to different ethics?

“Hosts have celebrity status, and bring in a lot of money, so people in those positions often do get different treatment,” said Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, the public editor or ombudsman for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Sandoval-Palos, a veteran journalist of 40 연령, receives up to 150 questions and complaints a day and considers his job to be “the audience’s defender”.

He’s one of a vanishing number of independent US ombudsmen, 포함 the New York Times dissolving the role 에 2017 in favor of a staff-run centre, and he believes there’s an “emerging difference [on cable] between ‘information’ and ‘news’”.

Sandoval-Palos compared some US cable news to a “choose your own news” video game, in which viewers pre-select the outcome of real events, from the true winner of the US election, to whether Russia is spying on you.

일부 say the CNN president, Jeff Zucker, stepping down at the end of 2021, is responsible for altering CNN’s reputation for neutrality.

Rod Hicks, director of ethics and diversity at the Society of Professional Journalists, 말했다: “From what I see Jeff Zucker has said he wants the talent to have ‘authentic reactions’ to the news they’re reporting. To many of us who watch CNN now, we do see comments that … fall into the opinion category.

“The problem is viewers don’t make this distinction. People hear it and to them it’s the news.”

In America the very concept of press regulation is unthinkable to many.

But if journalists are the watchmen of democracy, who watches the watchmen? And in the age of dangerous disinformation, should there be a clearer separation about what is news and what isn’t?

“That is the $64,000 question,” said Susan McGregor, a researcher at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute and former assistant director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

“There’s huge concern that if we start telling people who is and isn’t a journalist it’s a step towards restricting freedom of speech or the press.”

She added: “I don’t think everything at CNN is tainted, but they need to be more transparent. What really rankles … is claiming the prestige of an ethical standard, whilst simultaneously subverting it.”

On the day of Biden’s inauguration Lauren Wolf, then a freelance editor for the New York Times, lost her job, seemingly over a tweet in which she claimed to have “chills” watching his plane land. It turned out not to be carrying him, but her message was picked up by cable networks and she lost her position.

In response to a question from the Guardian about whether different journalistic standards applied to celebrity TV hosts, Wolf wrote: “All I would have to say on this is that yes, opinion parades as news more and more, it seems.”

CNN, Fox and MSNBC have been contacted for comment.

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