Pot, meet Kettle, 2
Further thoughts on the "evil menace of Chris Cuomo," media ethics, and journalistic conflict-of-interest.
And so it is done.
Chris Cuomo, who one would think is the greatest living threat to journalism as we know it, has been fired. Unceremoniously so, at that. Most people at his station in life are given the opportunity to save some face by resigning, but not here. Cuomo was let go in uncommonly brusque fashion, as per CNN’s memo informing the world that he was “terminated, effective immediately.” One pictures a goon squad from HR collecting Cuomo’s keys and then escorting the brawny ex-anchor to the door, a goon positioned at each side and holding him firmly by the elbow.
Cuomo’s accusers and critics in recent days have thrown an awful lot of stones, but are hardly without sin….even if the media don’t quite see it that way. I would argue, however, that their sins are several orders of magnitude more egregious than any offense perpetrated by Cuomo, even if he’s 100% guilty of colluding with his brother plus the mysterious new allegation of sexual misconduct. (And isn’t it convenient how every time the woke establishment needs to purge a man, a sexual allegation pops up, and is often the deciding factor. Take Cuomo the elder. Some folks think Andrew’s COVID policies directly occasioned x-number of deaths; that grievance has percolated for a full year. But grab a boob1 and you’re gone!)
Here we need another momentary digression before returning to our main theme. I oppose capital punishment. But in a long piece for Skeptic on structural problems in the criminal-justice system, I argued that if we’re going to administer that draconian penalty, it should be based not just on simplistic biblical notions of an eye for an eye, but rather on a crime’s overall social footprint. By that yardstick, a given crime of passion might be less worthy of the death penalty than certain white-collar crimes that devastate the lives of thousands or even millions—say, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, or certainly the shenanigans perpetrated by the so-called “smartest guys in the room” at Enron (both scams causing countless personal bankruptcies and even suicides).
Now, so far as we know, Chris Cuomo is not responsible for any deaths, even though trolls in right-wing media insist on framing the Brothers Cuomo in terms of cutesy Mob metaphors, a proclivity that dates back to coverage of their father, Governor Mario. (All Italians in the limelight face such stereotyping. Remember how clever some pundits thought they were in dubbing Scaramucci Trump’s consigliere? Or read some of the quotes in here.) At worst, even if everything alleged of Chris is true, he has affected the lives of perhaps a half-dozen people (Andrew and Andrew’s accusers) in comparatively benign ways. Now, media critics like Washington Post’s Erik Wemple do insist that Chris Cuomo’s behavior in this matter undermines faith in media, but…seriously? Only 9% of Americans trust mass media “a great deal,” while 33% do not trust the media “at all.” The mainstream media's public image was a dumpster fire wrapped in a train wreck well before the Cuomos began mulling Andrew’s sex problem.
As I argued in Part 1, plausibly I think, by playing it (mostly) straight and treating major issues as if they do indeed have more than one side—an inclination on display especially over the past year or so—Cuomo may be CNN’s best hope of rehabilitating the network’s flagging image.
The media’s Real Ethics Problem is what Anderson and Don and Erin and Wolf (and Rachel and Joy and Lester) do day after dispiriting day, night after numbing night. Moreover, their ethical breaches directly affect the lives of millions of Americans and, I would again argue, are surely as much a factor in today’s ubiquitous social upheaval as Donald Trump’s fiery speech was a factor in the events of January 6.
Simply put, the media’s indefensible ethical conduct is responsible for an entrenched American climate of nihilism, chaos and destruction, as well as deaths that would not otherwise occur. (More on the deaths later.) If we’re less conscious of it, it’s only because in the media’s case the blame is diffused over more people.
It’s easier to make a case against a man than an institution, after all.
Let’s take the most obvious and abiding example, Big Journalism’s reporting on race and related themes. One thinks of coverage of George Floyd/Black Lives Matter. The first tenet of the SPJ code, “seek and report truth,” required the media to not simply rubber stamp a narrative that was aligned with their natural political sensibilities, but to put the Floyd case in perspective. “Provide context,” the code instructs. “Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story. The media’s failure to do so made them an accessory to last summer’s riots, which caused up to $2 billion in property damage at least 25 deaths.
But wait…you ask, weren’t they just reporting on what was happening?
No. That puts the cart before the horse. What was happening in the streets was happening in no small part because the media long ago took sides. Since Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, the message has been, if something bad happens to black people, it’s because they’re black, even if analogous misfortunes befall white people sans publicity. Writing in Quillette, John McWhorter, who is black, called attention to the case of Tony Timpa, a young white man who died at police hands (or knees) under circumstances eerily similar to the Floyd case.
“Rare is the week in which nightly newscasts fail to include some intimation of a police vendetta against Black America. Indeed, the victims’ names have been drilled into our national consciousness: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald. But our very familiarity with the names hints at a deeper truth: So infrequently does this occur that it’s possible to recite the names from memory. For this much is also certain: The math to support a pogrom against blacks simply isn’t there. According to a Washington Post database, police killed 19 unarmed black Americans in 2017 [NOTE: 14 in 2019, the last year for which we have figures I consider reliable]. If you were one of the 29 million blacks age 18 and over, and unarmed, your odds of being killed by a cop were about one in 1.5 million. You were more likely to win $50,000 in the Powerball Lottery. Put another way, the 19 killings represented the death of .00000066 of all black citizens. Is something that befalls fewer than one ten-thousandth of 1 percent of citizens truly the crisis that feverish media coverage had us believing?”
Let me add: More than one American per day dies falling out of bed. Last summer, did you get the sense from CNN and the assembled media that when we speak of a George Floyd, we are speaking of a phenomenon that occurs substantially less often than dying by falling out of your own bed? (Interestingly, this is a line of argument that the media actually will use when it suits their purposes, as here.)
Now let’s not be stupid about it. Obviously the Floyd killing had to be covered, as did the protests (and riots) that ensued. But would riots have ensued if the media hadn’t for years portrayed America as systemically racist and malfeasant toward black people?
Then, once the Floyd case broke, night after night, the media unprofessionally and unethically gave oxygen to a mythologized view of police violence against “the community,” even “police as slave catchers” (an odious comparison also trotted out by MSNBC’s Joy Reid in the Rittenhouse case). Instead of providing wholly factual context that might have deescalated matters (and don’t the media just love urging deescalation on cops!), journalists chose to scour the land for additional anecdotal evidence of white animosity. We had anecdotal Karens paraded before us as allegories for white privilege. We had chunks of air time given over to Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, for them to deliver their sanctimonious lectures.
Above all, night after night we had those awful visuals of poor George dying under Derek Chauvin’s knee. Consider McLuhan and “medium as message.” What was the cumulative message of those visuals? Advertising succeeds by giving products credibility via repetition.
Did the incessant Floyd images advertise to the mothers of young black men, “This is your baby boy’s fate?”
The media must thus answer for those who believe that cops kill 1,000 or more unarmed black men annually. In one infamous “man in the street” segment I saw, a pair of teenage black schoolgirls posited a death toll of 1000 or more in Minneapolis alone, where the Floyd killing occurred.
It was also incumbent on media to point out that unarmed does not equal tender-hearted and innocuous. Mike Tyson and Conor McGregor are two men who could be unarmed, yet very dangerous. Even the DOJ concluded that Michael Brown, already a hulking figure at 6-5 and 289 pounds, was in the process of trying to remedy his unarmed status by wresting away officer Wilson’s gun.
It followed that the media gave a megaphone to proponents of “Defund the Police.” Many seasoned observers link Defund-mania to the appalling crime wave of the past year, including a record number of homicides in American cities. I feel safe in proposing that there are dozens of Americans who’d be alive today were it not for the likes of Don Lemon and Joy Reid.
Why do I single out black news celebs like Lemon? Because of a second area of glaring hypocrisy that taints CNN’s handling of Chris Cuomo: allegations of conflict of interest. We know that Cuomo felt for his brother—of course he did—but whatever he did, he did it off stage, on his own time, if you will. Lemon, in contrast, told the Washington Post, “So if I’m the only black man on prime-time cable, I’m certainly going to speak for the people who don’t have the privilege of the platform that I have.”
Hmm. Cuomo was an ally to his one-and-only brother.
How is Don Lemon permitted to go on-air with the stated mission of acting as proxy for his millions of black brothers and sisters? Why is Lemon not forced at minimum to recuse himself from coverage of matters of race?
Given his own statements, is Lemon not likely to interpret and report events through the lens of a black man speaking for people who don’t have his platform? The same applies to MSNBC’s Reid and New York Times columnist Charles Blow, both of whom have declared their sympathies, but didn’t really need to: They seethe with racial animus.
In the end, you may feel that Chris Cuomo had to go, and I won’t argue the point. As a professor of media ethics, I can’t say I’m comfortable with his actions in this matter. But to act as if this is the most unethical thing going on in journalism today, when we have hordes of star journalists who’ve wholly abdicated their obligation to seek and report truth—and whose crimes show up on-air daily? And we see this also in coverage of MeToo and COVID and everything else?
Don’t make me laugh.