In Style

‘I wasn’t murdered. I’m still alive’: Chris Cuomo isn’t done with TV

user avatar Author: Dave Dave Source: The Washington Post
January 23, 2024 at 07:47
Chris Cuomo on the set of his NewsNation show. (NewsNation)
Chris Cuomo on the set of his NewsNation show. (NewsNation)

Cuomo, fired by CNN in 2021, is now the top-rated host on NewsNation. Despite a much smaller audience with the upstart network, he is still making waves.

Chris Cuomo has experienced the ups and downs of cable news — a medium that prizes controversy, up to a certain point. In December 2021, then-CNN President Jeff Zucker fired the intense and voluble prime-time star he once called “the perfect cable news anchor” over Cuomo’s involvement in combating a sexual harassment scandal plaguing his brother, Andrew, then the governor of New York. After some time off television, Cuomo, 53, found a new footing as the main attraction on NewsNation, an upstart channel that aims to find the elusive middle ground of cable news television viewership.

In 2023, his show ranked 133rd in cable news, with an average of 141,000 viewers per night — a fraction of the 1.2 million viewers he averaged his last year on CNN. But he’s NewsNation’s most-watched host, and “Cuomo” segments often go viral, including a monologue about the war in Gaza that has been watched 11.4 million times on X, formerly known as Twitter. He also still generates controversy, notably when he seemed to signal a willingness to consider voting for Donald Trump, whom he said is “not a megalomaniac” and does not pose “any greater risk to America” than Biden — though he later claimed his comments were misinterpreted by clickbait journalists. Recently, former CNN contributor Angela Rye accused him of calling her “tinsel crotch” in a 2021 text message after she posted an Instagram photo of herself in a sequined bathing suit; Cuomo has not commented.

This interview was edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q: Did you consider leaving the television news business entirely, rather than returning on a new network?

A: Well, I was kicked out of TV, so that wasn’t my decision. … It’s not like I had a change of heart about being on TV; it was taken from me. So, you have to deal with what comes your way. You have to change what you can, accept what you can’t, and focus on what you can control. And I had control over what I did next. And I chose to go to a place that was open to interpretation and much more driven by purpose.

Q: Did you ever feel that the coverage of your time at CNN and your eventual firing was excessive?

A: I think there was a great appetite to take me down, which is not paranoid, it’s the nature of our culture. You don’t make headlines by saying someone’s great. You make headlines by finding a way to take them down. And the higher you go, the harder you fall. The farther there is to fall. And I accept it. … I always knew that there was going to be backlash for the celebrity and the shine that came my way. I did not see it taking the shape or form or to the degree that it happened, but that’s the way it goes. … I was covered as much as you guys could get clicks off and make money off.

Q: Have you been satisfied with your decision to join NewsNation?

A: I am very pleasantly surprised by the appetite and the growth. I didn’t count on it, but I absolutely appreciate it. … There is a very real need, want and appetite for disruptive programming where institutions, norms, cultures, established ways are questioned. And I am perfect for that.

Q: Some people have questioned whether there is an appetite for a down-the-middle cable news network. Do you think they’re wrong?

A: Regular people don’t think left, right. They think reasonable. They think pragmatic. The media, the political culture, they want sides. They want it directional, because they’re part of a game of manipulation of processes, information and drama to suit the individual and collective needs of ratings, relevance and resonance. The majority of people in this country are forced into this game, but don’t want to play it. My role is to expose the game and to harness that sense of purpose to get back to being regular, reasonable, pragmatic, not left or right. … [NewsNation] is not middle-of-the-road. Nobody has ever called me that. Anybody who gets into a confrontation with me or a conversation — it’s their choice which one it is — knows that I’m not middle of anything. It’s about testing power and it’s about being reasonable.

Q: Chris Licht, who replaced Jeff Zucker, aimed to reposition CNN as a more down-the-middle option. Its new chief executive, Mark Thompson, seems to have dropped that initiative. Do you think the failure of Licht’s repositioning suggests that there is not an audience demand for more moderate programming?

A: I don’t know what’s working for them or not working for them and why. I don’t have worries about CNN. It’s a huge organization with a very powerful legacy, and they’ll be fine.

Q: Are you concerned that your NewsNation show reaches fewer people than your CNN show?

A: I’ve been No. 1. I’m not chasing the same brass rings that other people in the business may be chasing. I was No. 1 at the outlet that was the most influential media outlet in the world at the time. So, well then, where do you go from there? You have to think about what matters to you and why you’re doing it, if not just naked ambition, which has never really been my thing. … This is a start-up. So to compare it to a place that has been doing this for 40, 50, 60 years is not fair. What is fair is that this is a business where there is very little growth at all within the big, known platforms, and yet NewsNation … has had tremendous growth that was not anticipated, and, let’s be honest, not encouraged by the media. Very few stories are being written or spoken about why NewsNation is doing well and what it means. Very few. Why? Because your critic base is also your competition.

Q: Do you think you have maintained your relevance in the industry?

A: I was fired as a function of a crowdsourced consequence within the media. I wasn’t murdered. I’m still alive. If people knew me then, they know me now. And I am not a different person. … Personally, I certainly was changed by the circumstances that were forced onto me and my family. There’s no question about that. ... But I’ve always been the same journalist and communicator.

Q: Your NewsNation show tends to be looser and more casual. You also seem to travel a lot, including trips to Ukraine and Israel. How do you decide when a story is worth traveling for?

A: I went to Ukraine on my own dime without security both times. We were in Israel without security. I know how to handle myself. And I’ve been doing this a long time. I think you just know in this business. You know when things matter, and we put a priority on going. I believe in being in the field. I believe in being an eyewitness to history. I think it’s one of the biggest pluses of being in this business. … Too many people are staying home now. Too many people are comfortable in this business. And too many companies would rather play it cheap because coverage is expensive. But if you do it the right way and you have a small footprint and you’re not a diva, you can get where you need to be. And the risk is part of the job.

Q: You recently got some backlash for saying that Trump “won’t destroy any of the institutions” if he is elected to a second term. What did you mean by that? And how do you think the media would cover a second Trump administration?

A: I never said Trump won’t do anything bad. I made the case that I believe in the institutions of this constitutional republic, what we call our democracy, more than the intentions or abilities of Donald Trump or anyone else to destroy the same. I don’t believe that. If I’m wrong, it’s not about Trump, it’s about my confidence in our institutions and our culture of democracy. And I don’t think that’s wrong. … I don’t tell people who to vote for. Clearly, I am not a Trump voter. I am not a Trump fan. The media’s coverage of Donald Trump is largely what he asked for from the media, which was constant attention, negative or positive, because he doesn’t care. If he were to win again, I assume it would go basically about the same way the first time did, that he would get what he asked for from the media.

Q: Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly makes regular appearances on your show, which has attracted some criticism on social media. What is your relationship with him like, and how do you decide which guests to book?

A: When I started at Fox News, I used to go on Bill’s show, and I’d always stay in contact with him. Look, we’re dealing with something in our culture right now which is nothing short of censorship, in my opinion. There are too many bad decisions being made about what’s okay to say, what’s okay to think, what’s okay to feel or not. I am against less voices. I believe in more voices. If you don’t like Bill O’Reilly, or you don’t like the opposite of Bill O’Reilly, you need to hear and think about both. And we don’t do that in the media. … Conversation is a must, and it’s got to reflect the range of ideas. I don’t have Nazis on my show because they’re a known commodity and there’s no value in that. But there’s a such a range of ideas and such a desperation for change that you’ve got to entertain it, right and left. … The righties don’t like some of the lefties, and the lefties don’t like some of the righties. I don’t care. You don’t have to watch. But I am not going to fix the game to control the outcome. When you look at cable TV, you see people talking to the same kinds of people. That creates groupthink. It’s poison to our politics.

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