At the end of 2013, CNN executives sent word to Chris Cuomo: No more interviewing your brother on television.
The CNN host had taken a little heat when he addressed his older brother, Andrew Cuomo, deferentially as “governor” in an interview about a train accident in New York. Can you really cover your brother fairly? critics asked on Twitter.
So for six years, Chris Cuomo sat by silently while the governor appeared on his morning show “New Day,” but was interviewed by other CNN personalities. The elder Mr. Cuomo used those occasions to mock his little brother so brutally that Jon Stewart made a montage of it. Andrew Cuomo at one point suggested that Chris Cuomo “go into a prison and maybe stay there for about a year or so and then do an exposé on prison life.”
All that changed on Wednesday, March 11. Andrew Cuomo had become too central to the coronavirus story to ignore, and Chris Cuomo’s bosses at CNN gave him the green light.
So in a series of four riveting interviews, Andrew Cuomo, 62, delivered the scary reality of the pandemic to his brother’s audience. He also bragged that he is their mother’s favorite and that Chris — Christopher, he calls him — was the family “meatball.” When the governor’s audio finally dropped, Chris delivered an aside: “This is a great chance for me to say some things to him.”
The Cuomo brothers’ show became a deeper drama last week when Chris Cuomo, 49, revealed his coronavirus diagnosis. He had lost 13 pounds in three days. He chipped a tooth one night when he was in terrible pain. On Thursday, he called into his brother’s daily news conference.
“You came to me in a dream, you had on a very interesting ballet outfit, and you were dancing in the dream, and you were waving a wand and saying, ‘I wish I could wave my wand and make this go away,’” Chris Cuomo told the governor.
The sick guy in his basement roasting his brother is not exactly high-minded journalism. Imagine the reaction, if, say, a Trump family member interviewed the president on Fox News. But it is moving television. And more than anything, it reflects the instincts and inclinations of Jeff Zucker, the morning show producer-turned-corporate executive who now runs CNN.
“It flies against every preconceived notion of normal CNN standards and practices,” Piers Morgan, the former CNN host who is now a co-presenter of “Good Morning Britain,” said in an interview.
“But,” Mr. Morgan added, “the corona governor talking to his victim brother is incredible to watch.”
Both Cuomos declined to speak about their on-screen relationship. But on his SiriusXM radio show last Tuesday, the younger Cuomo acknowledged that, when interviewing the governor, he’s not an ordinary journalist questioning a public official. He’s offering insight into a man he is close to and hopes his audience can understand more deeply.
“I wanted people to see that he’s not just super-intense on this all the time — that he’s living it with you,” Chris Cuomo said. “He gets it. He’s not a general. He’s a man in full, and he’s worried.”
He acknowledged the obvious conflict of interest. “There will come a time when there’s an accountability measure where it will no longer make sense for it to be me” interviewing the governor, he said.
Even without the almost cinematic story line, the coronavirus moment seemed tailor-made for Chris Cuomo. He’s a high-wattage, emotional journeyman who arrived at CNN to revive its morning show in 2013.
His unpredictable, in-your-face style — on camera and off — didn’t always work in an ensemble. So in 2018, Mr. Zucker moved him to a 9 p.m. slot, opposite MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity of Fox News, two ideologically driven powerhouses who typically — and easily — bested CNN in the ratings.
For two years, Mr. Cuomo delivered a solid audience — it is CNN’s top-rated show — but never broke out. His mad-as-hell attacks on government failures lacked the explanatory clarity offered by Ms. Maddow and her MSNBC colleague Chris Hayes. His celebrity quality — taut T-shirts and bulging biceps bared during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and workout videos on Instagram — didn’t connect to the political moment. His most compelling viral moment occurred last year, when he erupted angrily at a guy who called him “Fredo” at a bar on Shelter Island.
But the new crisis plays to his strengths. It is about Mr. Cuomo’s go-to topic: government failure. Audiences are eager for accountability and information. But they are also responding to love, Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News who keeps an eye on the competition, said in an interview. “Love between people — whether it’s brothers in high-profile positions, or doctors and patients.”
That is one thing the Cuomos do: They love one another. On March 30, the day a Navy hospital ship arrived in New York, they said “I love you” twice each, in quick succession.
The affection, the combat — this is, friends say, how they are. “I was a little shocked at how open they’re being about this but people seem to really enjoy it,” said a close friend of Chris Cuomo’s, Chris Vlasto, an ABC News executive producer. (I’ve noticed that I’m quoting a lot of men in this column; the Cuomos’ world is very male.)
The boys and their three sisters grew up at the feet of Gov. Mario Cuomo, who served as a counterpoint in the 1980s to the Republican president, Ronald Reagan. Mario Cuomo was the intellectual keeper of the Democratic flame, much as his elder son provides Democrats with their clearest contrast to President Trump today.
The governor was a demanding father who bred intense competitiveness among his children. Andrew was a gear head and his father’s right hand; Chris was the pudgy youngest of five, who worshiped his big brother. “The relationship between Andrew and Chris when they were younger was much more a father and son type relationship,” said John Marino, an aide to Mario Cuomo, who recalled driving to New Jersey with Andrew days before the 1986 New York election to check out a used sports car that Chris wanted. “Mario was governor, he was busy, and Andrew remained very, very close to Chris.”
Their relationship has stayed close, and complex. Andrew is a solitary figure, Chris is an extrovert. Andrew is a behind-the-scenes player, Chris is a performer.
Chris has also been an adviser to his brother, people who have worked for Andrew told me, sometimes extending his advice to the governor’s staff. He’s encouraged his brother’s boldness; he has also encouraged the governor’s prickliness about media coverage, a shared “Cuomo gene,” one friend said.
And now, suddenly, “my brother is this fulcrum point of where we are, and what’s going on, and now all of you are watching CNN for perspective on this and I’m right in the middle of it,” Chris Cuomo said on his radio show. “And now I have coronavirus. So weird.”
He added: “The fact that you think Andrew is sexy is so weird to me.”
CNN’s audience more than doubled from March 9 to April 2, according to Nielsen, outpacing its rivals in audience growth. “Cuomo Prime Time” is up even more, 118 percent. The most-read story on CNN’s website on Thursday — even as news broke that 6.6 million people had filed unemployment claims — was about Mr. Cuomo’s personal battle with the virus.
It’s easy, in this strange moment, to forget how far even outside the stretched norms of television news this is.
But the critics have started to raise eyebrows. The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, asked Saturday whether the “journalism ethics police” shouldn’t shut down the whole thing.
Fabian Reinbold, a German foreign correspondent based in Washington, was also puzzled.
“It would be considered highly inappropriate and corrupt back home, but here it is getting applause on Twitter by a lot of colleagues,” Mr. Reinbold said. “Needless to say, there are plenty of such problems in the Fox News/Trump corner as well, but this surprised much more.”
Crises often transform the broadly accepted rules of media. And for a century they’ve pulled news toward emotion and connection. Edward R. Murrow opened a new kind of broadcast news theater when he spoke from a London roof in 1940, and made his audience feel the terror of the Blitz. On Sept. 11, 2001, the business reporter Ron Insana, who witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center, showed up on “The Today Show” his suit still dusty with ash.
The coronavirus crisis has accelerated trends in American TV. There’s a technological shift; executives are already thinking about how much money they will save by sticking to Skype and Zoom (or, in CNN’s case, Cisco Webex, which struck perhaps the year’s luckiest marketing deal to put its logo on the screen of now-ubiquitous remote interviews). There’s the new experience of seeing reporters and anchors at home — which manages to feel both informal and staged at the same time.
But the biggest shift may be the one Mr. Zucker and the Cuomos are now leading. They are, in their way, answering the endlessly debated question of how to restore trust in media. Do you strive to project an impossible ideal of total objectivity? Or do you reveal more of yourself, on Twitter or on Instagram and in your home?
The old model for authority in public affairs, of course, is a man in a suit and a tie behind a desk. It was appropriated with particular success by Donald Trump on “The Apprentice,” another Zucker creation. Today, daily White House news briefings often feel like clumsily produced episodes of reality television, a kind of parody of old-fashioned TV seriousness.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zucker’s CNN is taking TV news in the other direction, toward reality television and Instagram, winning trust through the projection of a rough-cut realness. The Cuomos aren’t just feeling your pain. You’re feeling theirs.
News organizations invest heavily to build belief in their brands. That’s why CNN calls itself “The Most Trusted Name in News.” But at a moment when celebrities and social media figures seem to be connecting with Americans better than faceless brands, two brothers who share corny jokes and coronavirus fears are turning the “Cuomo” name into its own source of trust.
“You get trust from authenticity and relatability and vulnerability,” Mr. Zucker told me. “That’s what the brothers Cuomo are giving us right now.”