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Media Controversies Embroil Chris Cuomo, Martin Bashir


We're going to turn now to a couple of media ethics controversies that have been in the news this past week. One of them is here in the U.S. It's caused by revelations that CNN anchor Chris Cuomo advised his brother, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and some staff members on how to respond to sexual harassment allegations made against the governor. The other controversy has been unfolding in the U.K., where the BBC was forced to issue an apology after an independent report concluded that journalist Martin Bashir had used "deceitful behaviour," quote-unquote, to convince Princess Diana to give the network one of the most-watched interviews in its history.

We wanted to talk about the ethical ramifications of both of these cases, So we've asked NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik to join us. David, welcome. Thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: So, first of all, could you just walk us through the basics for people who don't know. What CNN anchor Chris Cuomo did, how did that violate ethics standards?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so it's a basic tenet of American journalism, right? You don't get too close to the people you're covering. And yet there's inherent, shall we say, tension, if not outright conflict, when you have one of the chief hosts of one of the most prominent news agencies in the country - Chris Cuomo in primetime on CNN is the younger brother of Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.

Andrew Cuomo became something of a media sensation during the early weeks of the COVID crisis, seemingly handling things with aplom and with transparency. And Chris Cuomo hosted Andrew Cuomo on his show. The two bantered back-and-forth, and this seemed awfully chummy. And even people who kind of enjoyed it, some in journalism, said, is this appropriate? This seems to be giving over a lot of real estate to somebody who, while a public official is also a partisan figure. And CNN essentially brushed it off and said this is some human dynamic and back-and-forth during a time of, you know, we're all shut in, international catastrophe, let's let it ride.

Well, that comes with a cost. And the cost is is that Andrew Cuomo is not without controversy. It turns out Andrew Cuomo had been hiding questions about deaths at nursing homes throughout New York State. And Andrew Cuomo is now also come under fire with serious and multiple allegations of sexual harassment that he denies, but nonetheless still stand out there. Chris Cuomo not only talked to him as a brother, he took part in damage control sessions with some of the governor's staffers. And it suggests that Chris Cuomo, while a public face of CNN, is also giving advice to the governor on how to stamp out essentially unwanted publicity.

This strikes me as very much a conflict of interest. Chris Cuomo says merely, you know, he's sorry to have put his colleagues in an uncomfortable position and that he won't be talking with the governor and his staffers anymore, but brother to brother, that bond is more important than any he has with CNN or with the public.

MARTIN: And what about Martin Bashir and the BBC? I want to mention that Bashir resigned as of May 14, citing health reasons. But talk about what happened there.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, this is the story, the tell-tale heart beating underneath the floorboards all these years. This goes back to 1995, when Bashir landed for one of the BBC's flagship documentary programs, "Panorama," an interview with Princess Diana. And it was one in which she said, you know, she always felt crowded in her marriage. She always felt that there were three people in her marriage, referring to Prince Charles and, of course, Camilla Parker Bowles, who's now Charles's consort.

And that interview essentially irrevocably frayed the relationship between Charles and Diana, who were already separated. They divorced. And ultimately, her children, her sons blame the press and, in part, that interview for the climate that surrounded her that led to her death as she was seeking to elude paparazzi in Paris all those years ago. Bashir used fake documents to convince Princess Diana's brother, Charles Spencer, that a couple of members of her inner circle were essentially on the payroll of the Murdoch press in Britain and others and led her to distrust figures close to her - wrongly, as it turned out - for those were forged documents, as I say, and led Charles Spencer to be convinced that her interests weren't being served.

And Diana and her brother decided that she should speak to Bashir. This was a career-making interview for Bashir, who would go on to ITV in Britain and interview Michael Jackson, and then came here to ABC News with his executive producer, who later went on to become the head of ABC News. So this was an incredibly important interview, the Diana interview, one gained under deceit and one covered up by the BBC in a so-called investigation just a year or two later that really was papering over a lot of the allegations that have proven to be true.

MARTIN: Just to be clear, Martin Bashir caused - either - caused documents to be fabricated. I don't think there's anybody who thinks that that's, you know, a legitimate journalistic practice to fabricate documents in order to induce someone to do an interview. And, of course, he denies that that was the ultimate reason why the Princess Diana agreed to the interview. But be that as it may, I don't know that anybody would argue about that, that that was just simply wrong. But do you think that - so even though, you know, Chris Cuomo isn't an accused of fabricating any information, do you think that these two cases have something in common?

FOLKENFLIK: I think they do. I think they tend to fuel the cynicism of what people might reasonably assume media elites do behind closed doors. One, in a sense, was done in private. That is Martin Bashir commissioning from a graphic designer to forge documents. One was done, in a sense, in public, the clear conflict of interest Chris Cuomo has in effectively promoting his brother as an affable public figure with the public's interest at heart. Although what he did behind closed doors in talking on the phone in the strategizing meeting was again kept secret from the public until The Washington Post disclosed it.

What you're seeing is that it's as though the rules don't apply to these figures at the top of the pyramid, that somehow, yes, there are rules against conflict of interest, yes, there are rules against dishonesty in reporting, but that major institutions are letting those things go if the figures are important enough.

MARTIN: The two media giants in question, CNN and the BBC, are also under scrutiny because of these cases. How would you say they've handled the fallout?

FOLKENFLIK: I would say that CNN has managed the fallout at this time without really dealing with it. It's basically said we won't have him do this very narrow thing anymore. But obviously, Chris Cuomo gets to be a brother first. I think if you're a brother first, you can question whether or not you should be having the governor of New York on the air at all and whether you should have not - you know, should have apologized for doing that, as opposed to only apologizing for counseling his staffers in private.

Similarly, the BBC, you know, is doing the full contrition. It has sent, you know, letters handwritten from the top officials to Prince Charles to Princess Diana's surviving sons. And it said what it did was terribly wrong in its ineffectual and compromised so-called investigation it did a year after the Bashir interview took place in the mid-'90s. What it's trying to do now is draw a line under it and saying we are being completely contrite, we are showing total transparency, and we want to move past this, so this doesn't endure as part of our relationship with the royal family or our relationship with the public. I think that's the better way to go. But the fact that it took a generation for a public accounting to occur tells you how badly the BBC truly handled this and how deeply they wanted to sinkhole this evidence of their dishonesty.

MARTIN: That was NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks so much for being here.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.