I was Chris Cuomo’s boss at ABC News nearly two decades ago, and I am a regular viewer of CNN today, so I’ve long watched how he communicates on camera and witnessed at times how he behaved behind the scenes. This year, as he escaped accountability for advising former Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his sexual harassment scandal, two moments crystallized for me how Mr. Cuomo performs.
The first was on March 1, two days before Governor Cuomo publicly addressed the sexual harassment allegations made against him by three women and apologized for acting “in a way that made people feel uncomfortable” but denied touching anyone inappropriately. On “Cuomo Prime Time,” Mr. Cuomo explained to his CNN viewers that because of the sexual harassment scandal, he would no longer be covering or interviewing his brother, as he frequently did during the first Covid-19 surge. With an expression of great sincerity, he said, “I have always cared very deeply about these issues and profoundly so. I just wanted to tell you that.”
The second moment came this Labor Day weekend, after Governor Cuomo had resigned and as his loyal confidants and outside advisers were losing their own influential jobs in the fallout. There was Mr. Cuomo in the Hamptons, appearing in a photo wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Truth.”
For me, his statement of profound concern about sexual harassment and his “Truth” T-shirt were provocations in this era of personal accountability.
So here’s another moment involving Mr. Cuomo, the one that stands out most in my experience with him.
“Now that I think of it … I am ashamed,” read the subject line of a 2005 email Mr. Cuomo wrote me, one hour after he sexually harassed me at a going-away party for an ABC colleague. At the time, I was the executive producer of an ABC entertainment special, but I was Mr. Cuomo’s executive producer at “Primetime Live” just before that. I was at the party with my husband, who sat behind me on an ottoman sipping his Diet Coke as I spoke with work friends. When Mr. Cuomo entered the Upper West Side bar, he walked toward me and greeted me with a strong bear hug while lowering one hand to firmly grab and squeeze the cheek of my buttock.
“I can do this now that you’re no longer my boss,” he said to me with a kind of cocky arrogance. “No you can’t,” I said, pushing him off me at the chest while stepping back, revealing my husband, who had seen the entire episode at close range. We quickly left.
Soon after, I received the email from Mr. Cuomo about being “ashamed.” He should have been. But my question today is the same as it was then: Was he ashamed of what he did, or was he embarrassed because my husband saw it? (He apologized first in his email to my “very good and noble husband” and then to me for “even putting you in such a position.”) Mr. Cuomo may say this is a sincere apology. I’ve always seen it as an attempt to provide himself with legal and moral coverage to evade accountability.
Now, given Mr. Cuomo’s role as a supporter of and counselor to his brother, I am left again wondering about his relationship with truth and accountability. Has this man always cared “deeply” and “profoundly” about sexual harassment issues? Does he believe enough in accountability to step up and take some meaningful actions?
I have no grudge against Mr. Cuomo; I’m not looking for him to lose his job. Rather, this is an opportunity for him and his employer to show what accountability can look like in the #MeToo era. Accountability has been the cornerstone of the #MeToo movement, leading to tangible results and even justice, consequences for harassers and the possibility of real change. Accountability has been clear in the wake of the New York State attorney general’s investigation into Governor Cuomo, which not only outlined instances of sexual harassment and mistreatment of at least 11 women by him but also identified an inner circle of advisers who helped guide him through this political and legal crisis. I call them the enablers. The official report documented the inner workings of these people, including Mr. Cuomo, and laid out their strategies and tactics to protect the governor.
Mr. Cuomo’s name shows up in an email thread with other advisers the weekend Governor Cuomo’s second accuser, Charlotte Bennett, came forward. The attorney general’s report says that he was part of “ongoing and regular discussions about how to respond to the allegations publicly” and that he appeared to counsel the governor “to express contrition.” The Washington Post also reported that Mr. Cuomo urged his brother to take a defiant position early in the scandal and not resign. We all know that Mr. Cuomo was being consulted by his brother; what has never come to light, and what Mr. Cuomo has not been held to account for, is the full scope of the advice he gave his brother and whether his advice and his role in helping shape the defense of a sitting governor (one who was being investigated by Mr. Cuomo’s own network) were in keeping with CNN’s standards and values. (In May, Mr. Cuomo apologized for taking part in strategy calls with the governor and his staff, calling it “a mistake.” CNN called those conversations “inappropriate.”)
After Governor Cuomo resigned, it didn’t surprise me that attention turned to the enablers. A number of them have been fired or forced to step down from their high-powered jobs. It did surprise me to learn that Roberta Kaplan, the chairwoman of Time’s Up, a nonprofit created at the start of the #MeToo movement to fight sexual harassment, was involved in efforts to defend the governor. She quickly resigned, followed by the group’s president and chief executive, Tina Tchen.
Finally, during the Labor Day weekend, as Mr. Cuomo was walking around in his “Truth” T-shirt, the entire 71-person Global Leadership Board of Time’s Upwas dissolved, including Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman, Janelle Monáe, Brie Larson, Tessa Thompson, Laura Dern, America Ferrera, Kerry Washington, Tarana Burke, Alyssa Milano, Gretchen Carlson and Amy Schumer. The members were reportedly notified Sept. 5 via email from a co-founder of Time’s Up, informing them, “There is no need for your individual resignations, as the group no longer exists.” I cannot recall any organization ever acting so swiftly and comprehensively to hold itself accountable after top leaders veered from their founding mission.
While the fallout has continued across Governor Cuomo’s circle of advisers — two former staff members resigned from outside jobs, and the president of the Human Rights Campaign was summarily fired — Mr. Cuomo and CNN seem to have moved on. As recently as last month, he was suggesting that he did not cross a line in aiding Governor Cuomo, telling his CNN viewers, “I’m not an adviser. I am a brother.” Abrother calls to privately console you after hours. An adviser is looped in on staff emails and crisis conference calls, gives talking points and helps shape the narrative.
I worked in television news for 30 years. I came up through the ranks as a producer at “Primetime Live,” an executive producer of “Good Morning America,” an executive producer of “Primetime Live”(where Mr. Cuomo was one of several anchors) and a senior executive producer of “The Early Show,” where I was painfully forced out after my managing came under attack in what I considered a toxic work culture. If Mr. Cuomo and CNN management don’t think he crossed a serious line, one that warrants consequences, I know he crossed a line with me. At one point in his 2005 email to me, he referred to how “Christian Slater got arrested for a (kind of) similar act (though borne of an alleged negative intent, unlike my own).” Mr. Slater was arrested after a woman reported that he had grabbed her buttocks as she walked down the street. Police charged him with third-degree sexual abuse. (The charges were dropped.) Mr. Cuomo, a former lawyer, appeared to use his short apology to legally differentiate the two incidents. He suggested Mr. Slater had “negative intent” while he, Mr. Cuomo, did not. He seemed to have a keen understanding of what accountability might look like back then; today we have no clear idea if either he or CNN is interested in accountability.
I never thought that Mr. Cuomo’s behavior was sexual in nature. Whether he understood it at the time or not, his form of sexual harassment was a hostile act meant to diminish and belittle his female former boss in front of the staff.
(Asked for comment, Mr. Cuomo said on Thursday night, “As Shelley acknowledges, our interaction was not sexual in nature. It happened 16 years ago in a public setting when she was a top executive at ABC. I apologized to her then, and I meant it.”)
I have fought sexual harassment in the workplace for 40 years now, and it can feel exhausting at times. In 1981, Roger Ailes insisted to me that we have a “sexual alliance” or my pending job offer at NBC’s “Tomorrow” show would be withdrawn. I called a lawyer and worried it might be the end of my budding television career. To my surprise, Mr. Ailes never denied it. He apologized profusely for what he called “middle age craziness” and persuaded me to accept the job, promising we’d never have another problem. I accepted it, naïvely thinking I could help reform the workplace one predator at a time.
Decades later, there is still a need to explain the many faces of sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s not just inappropriate touching, pressure to consent or drunken overtures after hours. Most sexual harassment is invisible to outsiders, as are the scars. It may be someone “accidentally” brushing up against you, or engaging in uncomfortable sexual innuendo with you, or asking you to spin around so they can look at your rear end. It’s all got to stop. You can’t have a sliding scale in which asking permission for a kiss is OK and a hand on the back is harmless. Who gets to draw the boundaries?
We must continue to hold the enablers accountable, both men and women. Time’s Uphas already presented one remedy: the clean sweep. But I see another way forward.
I’m not asking for Mr. Cuomo to become the next casualty in this continuing terrible story. I hope he stays at CNN forever if he chooses. I would, however, like to see him journalistically repent: agree on air to study the impact of sexism, harassment and gender bias in the workplace, including his own, and then report on it. He could host a series of live town hall meetings, with documentary footage, produced by women with expert consultants. Call it “The Continuing Education of Chris Cuomo” and make this a watershed moment instead of another stain on the career of one more powerful male news anchor.
Shelley Ross is a veteran television journalist and former executive producer at ABC and CBS.
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