‘Past is prologue’: 10 months after CNN firing, Chris Cuomo returns to TV news

Chris Cuomo sounds more like a coach of a failing minor league team than a news anchor as he steps into a new job at fledging cable network NewsNation, striding across his new, smaller studio and shouting “Are you ready to change the game? Good let’s get after it.”

It’s only been 10 months since Cuomo was fired from CNN, after it emerged he was helping his disgraced brother, the former New York governor Andrew Cuomo who faced accusations of sexual harassment – allegations that he denies. The New York attorney general’s office investigation found that Chris had used his journalistic contacts to try to get information about his brother’s accusers. These interventions went far beyond what CNN management were aware of and breached journalistic ethics.

Cuomo had the most-watched show on CNN at the time of his firing, often reaching 2 million viewers a night. He had become a prominent figure for his coronavirus coverage, which would often include jokey, friendly conversations with his brother who was leading New York’s pandemic response.

NewsNation is a network that is less than two years old, and has considerably less budget than its big cable competitors and an average audience of about 46,000 – something Cuomo is hoping to improve upon. In interviews leading up to this debut he’s said he chose NewsNation because he’s excited to get in on the ground floor at a network that’s just starting out. But more likely it’s because nowhere else would have him after he vandalised his journalistic reputation.

Nevertheless, Cuomo is looking pumped. No sitting on this show – just standing astride the studio, puppy dog forgive-me eyes looking straight into the camera. Cuomo has always been a little more bro-ish than his cable news colleague, but tonight his jockish figure is barely contained by his game-day pinstripe suit. Your boy is ready to do the NEWS! Let’ssssssss anchor!

So how to address all this and get on with the business of cable news? Cuomo got straight to it: “Shakespeare wrote in the Tempest, that ‘the past is prologue’,” he said, without a hint of irony. “I’ve been humbled by what happened and I’m also hungry to do better in a way that I’ve never done before.”

That was pretty much it. There was no mention of the 11 women who came forward including a staffer who alleged Andrew Cuomo groped her breasts and the state trooper who said he would run his fingers down her back while she was trying to protect him – allegations Andrew Cuomo denies. There was no mention of why both he and his brother were fired, nor any acknowledgment that he breached journalistic ethics. Instead he tried to present his closeness to his brother as a positive for his viewers: “Most people in my business know politics from the outside, I know it from the inside … I’ve seen the inner workings of campaigns … and the interplay between the media and those in power.”

But then what did you expect? Cuomo has only ever had two settings: locker room banter or angry disappointed father. Contrition has never been on the dial. Indeed he has denied misleading his employers and is suing CNN for $125m for wrongful termination, none of which is mentioned tonight.

Instead, Cuomo waxes for 15 minutes about the ideology of the new show. It’s all about avoiding partisanship, getting to the truth, reasonableness not left versus right, and other well-meaning centrist platitudes. But actually this is not, as had been sold, a fact-based old school newscast. Cuomo does a lot of hardcore opinion – much of it speaking to big-D Democratic principles. He admonishes the media for ignoring the protests in Iran, the GOP for failing to pass a law that would provide resources to those in emotional distress in schools, the big colleges for charging too much for an education, and Susan Collins for failing to speak up for democracy. He makes clear demands for ranked choice voting, term limits in congress, greater legal immigration to fill jobs, and limits to assault weapons. For all his promise that he was ready to deliver for the silent majority, the opening episode of Cuomo sounded a lot like it could have been on MSNBC.

After all that sheer monologuing it was into a decent, well-delivered and slightly dull newscast – peppered with wild bits of imperialist agitprop. In an otherwise perfunctory segment on Ukraine, for example, he described the country’s ambitions as “insanely American” and compared their struggle to the Revolutionary War, as if it was only in these terms that his viewers might be able to support them. His two guests, both Republicans, Clinton’s defense secretary William Cohen and Trump’s security adviser John Bolton, said the things you’d expect – Ukraine good, Putin bad, America must help.

After that, a fawning interview with Bill Maher, hardly a big get for his debut show, followed much of the same meaningless, both sides bad, stop fighting, start listening stuff that NewsNation claims to be all about (without, on the basis of this hour at least, doing much in the way of actual newsgathering). And then an interview with Dan Rather, presumably in the hope some authoritative anchor pixie dust might rub off, in which many of the same beats are hit.

Finally, because old habits die hard, Cuomo finishes the show with some light banter with a family member – not his brother this time, but his mother, herself a former first lady of New York who calls in to say the show is “good, very good”. More of that unfiltered truth to power.

Throughout the evening Cuomo comes back to sport metaphors. He calls his audience “free agents” because they have no team or tribe. “Here I wanna make a play to you,” he says.

But the news isn’t a sport, after a bad year you don’t get a no1 draft pick and a new season at which to try again. Cuomo has big questions he needs to answer about whether his loyalties are to his journalism or to the Cuomo political dynasty – nothing on the basis of tonight’s episode suggested he was ready to face up to calls. Instead it felt as if he was just playing the game.