Chris Cuomo, who spent years as the highest-rated anchor on low-rated CNN’s prime time roster, has filed a bombshell legal complaint, exposing numerous previously unknown scandals involving his former employer.
If Cuomo’s $125 million arbitration request is to be believed, even the most cynical view of how CNN executives deliberately skewed the network’s political coverage against Republicans and in favor of Democrats, flouted journalistic ethics, and cozied up to powerful politicos for their own benefit is too kind.
Here are a few of the most damning allegations Chris Cuomo makes in his latest legal filings, which were obtained and published by Deadline.
1. CNN’s leaders advised then-Governor Andrew Cuomo — and gave him advice on ‘responding’ to Trump
Chris Cuomo first encountered real turbulence with CNN leaders when The Washington Post reported that he advised his brother, then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), on how to handle numerous allegations of sexual harassment. The network later suspended him on the grounds that his role exceeded anything he disclosed. But Cuomo maintains not only that the network knew all about his role in helping his brother, but that the network brass advised Governor Cuomo themselves.
“Until May 2021, CNN never asked Cuomo to stop or curtail his efforts to assist his brother through the sexual harassment allegations, despite being fully aware of Cuomo’s role assisting him,” the filing says — an allegation it makes numerous times.
But then comes a new wrinkle according to Cuomo’s filing: Then-CNN President Jeff Zucker and his paramour Allison Gollust — Governor Cuomo’s former communications director — gave Governor Cuomo advice regarding his handling of COVID-19.
“Zucker and Gollust acted as advisors to Gov. Cuomo during this time by providing him with talking points and strategies for responding to statements made by then-President Donald Trump,” says Chris Cuomo’s legal brief.
Furthermore, Cuomo alleges that Gollust also gave advice to the governor about how to respond to the sexual harassment allegations. He cited a Wall Street Journal article that notes Gollust “sent Chris Cuomo a sentence she said she would have added to a statement that Andrew Cuomo had issued earlier that day in February of last year, after an accuser went public.”
Gollust also asked Cuomo “whether one of Gov. Cuomo’s accusers had ever said publicly that Gov. Cuomo had never touched her, saying that CNN should report on such a statement if it had been made,” Cuomo’s legal complaint says.
Gollust strongly denied the charges through spokeswoman Risa Heller. “Allison Gollust never offered advice or counsel to Andrew Cuomo. Period,” Heller told WSJ. “If she wanted to advise the governor, she could have called or texted him directly (she didn’t).” Heller went on to call Gollust’s texts “mundane” and “innocuous” while dismissing the accusations as “farfetched.”
2. CNN arranged the questions Andrew Cuomo would be asked on the air
Allison Gollust “agreed to pre-arrange questions for Gov. Cuomo in advance of interviews,” Chris Cuomo states. Then-Governor Cuomo had a longstanding relationship with Gollust, whom he hired as his communications director between her stints working with Zucker at NBC and CNN (October 2012 until March 2013). The New York Times reported that before a March 2020 CNN interview:
Governor Cuomo had told a senior CNN executive, Allison Gollust, about subjects that he’d like to be asked about on air, according to several people familiar with the matter. Ms. Gollust, CNN’s longtime chief of communications and marketing and a former top aide of the governor, passed along the topics to CNN producers and then reported back to the governor.
“Done,” she wrote.
The newspaper of record noted it is “unusual” for a senior producer to be involved in this stage of the interview process, especially one involving a former employer. Even Gollust seemed to find the arrangement unusual, texting the governor, “I’m pretty sure I stopped being your publicist 8 years ago, but apparently I still am.” But Rolling Stone reported that Gollust praised Governor Cuomo after a CNN interview, “Well done . . . Cuomo-W. Trump-L.”
The interlude adds fuel to the notion that Gollust and Governor Cuomo’s relationship amounted to a never-ending quid pro quo. For instance, Gollust’s spokeswoman acknowledges that Gollust asked the governor to help a friend get past bureaucratic red tape in order to open a business.
Gollust once texted Cuomo, “I never ask you for favors, but . . .” Cuomo replied, “Yes, u do ask me for favors, and that’s okay. It’s mutual.” That favoritism apparently extended to CNN interviews. “The network brass’s interactions with the governor represented the worst kind of journalistic lapse,” wrote journalist Tatiana Siegel.
3. CNN told Chris Cuomo to conduct his ‘comedic’ interviews with his brother
One of Chris Cuomo’s most controversial on-air interactions came during a series of interviews he conducted with his brother during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also the height of Governor Cuomo’s popularity, as the media built him up as a competent Democratic alternative to President Donald Trump. But Chris Cuomo says he never wanted to perform any of the interviews; he and his brother were forced.
“Despite Cuomo’s and Gov. Cuomo’s expressed reservations, CNN demanded through its leadership that Cuomo interview Gov. Cuomo frequently.” That request came from Allison Gollust, who “communicated directly with Gov. Cuomo to tell him how ‘important’ it was to Zucker that Gov. Cuomo appear on Cuomo’s show,” alleges Chris Cuomo.
The younger Cuomo says he and his brother dutifully complied with the network’s order to appear together on camera as frequently as possible. “Indeed, between March 19, 2020 and June 24, 2020, Gov. Cuomo appeared on Cuomo’s program nine times. These interviews became wildly popular among viewers, and CNN benefited enormously from the resulting ratings bonanza,” the complaint says.
The two brothers gave CNN viewers a rehash of the classic Smothers Brothers’ sibling rivalry act from the 1960s. Chris also engaged in prop comedy with multiple oversized Q-tips supposedly being used to test his brother for COVID-19. For his part, the governor yucked it up, calling himself “a cool dude in a loose mood.”
4. CNN brass hinted they would fire Chris Cuomo if Andrew Cuomo appeared on other networks
Jeffrey Zucker and Allison Gollust supposedly used Chris Cuomo’s employment as a bargaining chip to keep Governor Andrew Cuomo from appearing on other networks — and to maximize the then-popular governor’s appearances on CNN. “CNN, through executives Zucker and Zucker’s second-in- command, Allison Gollust … made a concerted effort to cement and strengthen the network’s ties to Gov. Cuomo and his administration and control his media presence for CNN’s exclusive benefit. CNN pushed Gov. Cuomo not to appear on other networks, intimating that not honoring CNN’s request might threaten [Chris] Cuomo’s professional standing with the network,” the legal complaint says.
The network also allegedly “requested that Gov. Cuomo hold his daily COVID-19 press conference at a time that was most suitable for the network based on its program schedule and when its ratings were weakest.” The time when CNN’s “ratings were weakest” should have given Governor Cuomo a significant range of time to choose from.
5. CNN execs used their relationship with Governor Cuomo to get COVID-19 tests
An early Chris Cuomo scandal occurred when he was accused of gaining access to highly sought-after COVID-19 rapid tests thanks to his family connections to the governor. It later emerged that Chris Cuomo was offered human blood plasma from a donor who had recovered from COVID-19, an experimental treatment before the vaccine became available. But Chris Cuomo’s legal filings say CNN network executives exploited their proximity to Governor Andrew Cuomo for the same purpose. “Notably, for years CNN did not discipline Gollust or Zucker for their egregious violations of CNN policy, including both Gollust and Zucker using their privileged access to Gov. Cuomo to secure COVID tests,” Cuomo says.
6. CNN has no journalistic ethics
Chris Cuomo’s arbitration complaint establishes numerous allegations that CNN had no real journalistic code of ethics. Zucker selectively applied rules to shield favored commentators and punish disfavored employees (especially political conservatives):
CNN has a long-established pattern and practice of selectively enforcing its policies based on cynical calculations of public perception. Indeed, CNN fostered a culture in which ‘exceptions’ to the network’s standards and practices were routinely sanctioned, and that culture began at the top with Zucker and Gollust. As long as CNN’s ratings would not be hurt, Zucker and Gollust were more than willing to overlook major transgressions by CNN personalities such as Don Lemon and Jake Tapper, or even to engage in blatant misconduct themselves.
Cuomo notes that actor Jussie Smollett said during his trial that CNN’s Don Lemon told him that Chicago police did not believe his tale that angry men attacked him and threw a noose around his neck as they shouted, “This is MAGA country!” Cuomo mentions CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin’s restoration at the network following his “sordid act of sexual harassment.”
Interestingly, Chris Cuomo cites Fox News as a — to coin a phrase — reliable source when it comes to the activities of his former CNN colleagues. “Fox News reported on September 10, 2020 that CNN anchor Jake Tapper had repeatedly urged Congressional candidate Sean Parnell not to run against Rep. Conor Lamb, but to run in a ‘safer,’ more heavily Republican district,” Cuomo’s complaint notes, adding that the network took no action against Tapper.
This author reported allegations that CNN has no real ethical code and tilted its journalistic ethics as it saw fit. “You won’t see any rules that are etched in stone so that a violation could be a firing offense,” said Steve Holmes, who spent a decade at CNN before retiring during Zucker’s tenure at CNN. “They can’t say that [Cuomo]’s violated any written policies because there aren’t any, period.” Cuomo essentially endorsed that view, saying, “CNN fostered a culture in which the network’s standards and practices were a constantly moving target, modified at CNN executives’ discretion as they saw fit.”
7. Chris Cuomo thinks he has journalistic integrity
Chris Cuomo’s phenomenal $125 million figure comes, because he’s seeking the remaining $15 million due to him under the terms of his contract, plus $110 million in damages against CNN. The reason? From now on, no one will take him seriously as a journalist.
“Cuomo has had his journalistic integrity unjustifiably smeared,” his legal complaint stated. “As a direct result of CNN’s calculated efforts to tar and feather him, Cuomo is now untouchable in the world of broadcast journalism, effectively bringing his storied career to a premature end and costing him decades of earnings, exceeding $125 million in consequential damages.”
The use of the word “untouchable” may be ironic. But so, too, are his claims of journalism. In 2020, Tucker Carlson released a tape of Chris Cuomo coaching Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen on how to answer questions at the network. The Daily Wire reported Carlson’s summary of the tape:
“Michael Cohen was worried about doing the interview because he knew he’d get questions about the payments he made to Stormy Daniels. He wanted Chris Cuomo to tell him what to say,” Carlson continued. “Now on TV, Cuomo might’ve launched into a lecture about how it’s wrong to send money to strippers, but in private, he skipped that lecture.”
“‘You will be asked that,’ Chris Cuomo told Michael Cohen, and you can say, ‘I did it for him, for Donald Trump. My relationship has always been for him. I’ve always said I don’t speak for the campaign, I speak for him as his attorney,’” Carlson continued. “Cuomo went on to elaborate, ‘And to the question of motive,’ he told Cohen, ‘the response would have to be, you can speculate as to why you think I did it all day long, but the only answer is my answer, and I just told you why I did it. You don’t get to speculate because if you can’t prove that I got paid back by Trump or the campaign, it is slander and defamation for you to say that I did.’”
All of the foregoing is offered with the caveat that this comes from Chris Cuomo’s legal complaint. It may well be false; given Cuomo’s journalistic standards, one would hardly be surprised. But this reporter has included the few responses the subjects have offered; for the most part, they have refused public comment. And the discerning viewer needed no internal document to know something was rotten during Zucker’s highly contentious tenure as network president, which saw the fall of CNN’s ratings eclipsed only by its journalistic integrity, balance, and reliability — a fall Cuomo’s legal brief confirms in every particular.