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Gov. Cuomo may be exiting, but ethical concerns still swirl around Chris Cuomo, CNN

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation this week upended the political career of a Democratic scion who once towered over the state. But the scrutiny on his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, continues to rivet people in the overlapping worlds of media and politics, raising questions about ethical considerations inside the cable network and the public reputation of one of the key brands in American television.

Chris Cuomo, the host of CNN’s 9 p.m. show “Cuomo Prime Time,” came under a microscope last week after New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a scathing report on sexual misconduct allegations against the governor. Andrew Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing.

The report detailed how the broadcaster was involved in managing the response to the scandal — a dynamic that media experts suggest was a journalistic conflict of interest that many in the profession would consider inappropriate.

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, wrote this week that Chris Cuomo’s role as an informal adviser to his powerful brother was “deplorable.”

“He has put brotherly love ahead of journalistic propriety,” she wrote in a column published Monday, a day before Andrew Cuomo announced he would step down. “[T]he network’s leadership has let him get away with it.”

Chris Cuomo was part of the governor’s inner circle while, in late February, he helped devise media talking points and strategies Andrew Cuomo could use to respond to the multiple accusations of sexual harassment, according to emails and text messages made public last Tuesday by investigators for James.

Erik Wemple, the Post’s media critic, lambasted Chris Cuomo’s “line-crossing behavior” in a column, also published Monday, headlined “CNN must investigate Chris Cuomo.”

When reached for comment, CNN spokesman Matt Dornic pointed NBC News to one of its previous statements.

“Chris has not been involved in CNN’s extensive coverage of the allegations against Governor Cuomo — on air or behind the scenes,” the company has said. “In part because, as he has said on his show, he could never be objective.

“But also because he often serves as a sounding board for his brother. However, it was inappropriate to engage in conversations that included members of the Governor’s staff, which Chris acknowledges. He will not participate in such conversations going forward.”

The spotlight on Chris Cuomo comes at a potential moment of transition for CNN and other major cable news outlets, including MSNBC, which is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News. CNN, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, aggressively raised its profile over the last five years with wall-to-wall coverage of the Trump administration, the 2020 presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic.

CNN has become virtually synonymous with “the mainstream media” frequently deplored by supporters of former President Donald Trump, and the company remains an outsize target for conservative critics, as well as a focal point in the debate over the role of the modern media.

The network is by no means the first news organization to draw criticism over alleged improprieties — NBC News, for its part, has found itself embroiled in various scandals in the last decade — but few have centered on a marquee TV personality who had such close ties to one of the most prominent Democratic politicians in the country.

Samuel Freedman, a professor at Columbia Journalism School who specializes in ethics, said he views Chris Cuomo’s actions as a “blatant conflict of interest.” (Freedman, a former reporter for The New York Times, disclosed that he has contributed articles to CNN’s website on a freelance basis, but he said he has no ongoing professional relationship with the network.)

He said that total candor with CNN executives is crucial. If the news anchor told his bosses he was giving advice to the governor, he said, the network should have put him on a paid leave of absence “for the duration of this issue.”

The New York Times, citing two anonymous sources, reported last Wednesday that, earlier this year, CNN executives told Chris Cuomo that if he wanted to advise his brother he could take a temporary leave from the network. The Times reported that the proposal was informal and optional — not a direct request.

Freedman said that while the scandal at the top of New York state government dominated national headlines, the network should have also considered temporarily re-assigning Chris Cuomo to a different subject — entertainment or business coverage, for example — that did not necessarily “overlap so much” with political news involving his brother.

In May, Chris Cuomo admitted that he had “inappropriate” strategy conversations with his older brother. He promised to steer clear of the network’s coverage of his brother.

Freedman said even the public perception of a conflict of interest is “corrosive to a news organization’s credibility.”

He noted that many “news organizations have survived worse scandals than this,” but he said the issue could “undermine” the network’s own reporters who have covered Andrew Cuomo.

The scrutiny on Chris Cuomo also arrives during a period of cultural upheaval at many American newsrooms and media companies as some employees — especially younger and more diverse staffers reared on the democratic energy of the internet — demand greater accountability for executives and on-air personalities who they believe escape consequences for ethical lapses or other problematic behavior in the workplace.

At the same time, media industry insiders are speculating on the future of CNN chief Jeff Zucker, a veteran media executive who, sources previously said, could take on an even larger corporate role after WarnerMedia and Discovery are formally merged. (Zucker was once the CEO of NBCUniversal.)

CNN apparently has not disciplined Chris Cuomo — a decision that one employee said she found particularly galling.

“There is no reprimanding, right? He didn’t even get the ‘slap-on-the wrist, one-week suspension’ that we see elsewhere when a journalist makes a mistake,” said the employee, a writer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The employee said she was also troubled by the network’s decision to bring back Jeffrey Toobin, the legal analyst and author who was suspended by CNN and fired by The New Yorker after he was seen exposing himself during a video conference meeting in October. (Toobin, in an on-air appearance in June, described himself as a “flawed human being who makes mistakes” and said his conduct was “deeply moronic and indefensible.”)

“I guess one way to put it is that it’s been really hard to be a woman at CNN, because you see these decisions and you’re seeing them prioritize and defend men,” the writer said, later adding: “It just seems to create that culture of: Why are you defending and protecting these people who don’t need to be defended and protected?”

Matthew Sheffield, a creator of conservative news websites who has since become a critic of that media ecosystem, said he expected that many partisan warriors aligned with Trump would probably see Chris Cuomo’s actions as yet more reason to malign a network many of them view as hypocritical “fake news.”

But he added that many of those critics could also be accused of hypocrisy given the various ethical issues — including conflicts of interest — inside right-leaning television channels and digital outlets. (Chris Cuomo’s situation has been the subject of multiple articles on Fox News’ website.)

“They do not operate in good faith,” Sheffield said. “They all do the exact same things and, in fact, much worse. Fox News has no credibility to talk about any of this stuff.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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