There’s a lot to learn from CNN’s firing of Chris Cuomo. A lot about American cable news, ego and television’s tolerance of the ridiculous.
On Tuesday of last week, CNN suspended the prime-time anchor from his job after documents released by the New York State Attorney-General’s office revealed that Cuomo had been heavily involved in defending his brother Andrew Cuomo when Andrew was governor of New York and facing accusations of sexually inappropriate behaviour. On Saturday, CNN fired Cuomo, after an allegation of “serious sexual misconduct” by Cuomo years before, when he worked at ABC. This complaint was brought to CNN by a lawyer representing the victim of the alleged misconduct.
CNN had simply had enough. What’s remarkable is that it took so long to reach the point of Cuomo being fired. What we can extrapolate is that Cuomo’s popularity on CNN was the channel’s priority for a long time. He’s the epitome of a cable news host: a big presence, a booming voice and an aggressive style. Across the spectrum of cable news, on Fox News and MSNBC, there are figures just like him, men and women who command the camera and the audience with bluster and pomposity. The key quality is self-importance.
Viewers like it. They are drawn to the pretension and grandiosity of these hosts, and they forgive a lot of superciliousness.
In April of last year, during the first wave of COVID-19, when many people were under lockdown and deeply anxious about the pandemic, Chris Cuomo and his brother Andrew began doing a perplexing vaudeville act on CNN regularly. “You’re the meatball of the family,” Andrew told Chris on one night. The banter was often that ridiculous, and anyone with an ounce of interest in media ethics was alarmed by the sight of journalist Chris joshing with his brother, an elected official. But viewers loved it, ratings went up and CNN ignored anyone who said the brother act was unethical.
Chris Cuomo’s sense of self-importance was the engine driving everything from that brother act to his deep involvement in Andrew’s attempts to defend against a sexual harassment scandal. Only an idiot would think that such political involvement would not have consequences in his media job. But there’s always been something of the buffoon about Chris Cuomo, and John Oliver was the first to spot the buffoonery beneath the cable news host’s bluster.
On a Sunday in October of 2018, Oliver ended his weekly HBO show with a sequence that mocked the social-media accounts of several cable news hosts. He had fun with MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski posting to Instagram about her pet pig. But it was Cuomo who took up most of the sequence. Oliver gleefully showed viewers how Cuomo posted the most pretentious blather about his job at CNN, his workout routines and Cuomo’s bizarre, hectoring tone aimed at his producer Rose, who was obliged to film these activities and blather for Cuomo’s Instagram account. He also heaped scorn on Cuomo’s relentless attempts to make the catchphrase “Let’s get after it” part of his brand.
“But the oddest feature of Chris Cuomo’s Instagram is just videos of him working out,” Oliver said. “There are many, many videos of him lifting, sweating and grunting. And look, far be it from me to judge Chris Cuomo. His triceps are wider than my entire body. But something about his thirst pit of an Instagram feels a little desperate for approval, no more so than with his constant efforts to get his catchphrase to happen.”
Only an Englishman such as Oliver would wield the phrase “thirst pit,” but he nailed it by saying Cuomo was desperate for attention and by showing Cuomo behaving ridiculously for a news anchor and, worse, oblivious to how foolish he looked.
What Oliver did was separate the cable news host from the studio, the cameras and all the other trappings of prime-time cable news shows. Most hosts would look ridiculous if they performed their self-importance away from the studio, and most don’t. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity of Fox News save their TV act for the TV studio. Cuomo was captured with forensic sharpness by Oliver, all that self-importance was illuminated and Cuomo’s complete lack of self-awareness was comically clear.
In American cable news hosting, everything is an act, a performance. Not only did Chris Cuomo not understand the conflict of interest in which he engaged, he never understood that the art of performance is best kept for the TV studio. Taking it to a personal gym or into the family’s political arena is just dumb.
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