Newsman Chris Cuomo is co-anchor of the long-running ABC Newsmagazine Show 20/20, a role he took on after serving as news anchor on Good Morning America and a correspondent for Fox News. The son and brother of New York Governors, TSD talked to Cuomo about his experiences covering wars, his opinion on the changing media landscape and why he doesn’t wear a mustache.
TOWN SQUARE DELAWARE: You trained as a lawyer – how did you end up in television?
CHRIS CUOMO: I was looking for a profession that was less respected…this was all I could find. In truth, I was drawn to the advocacy side of the law, and through those efforts came to see that the media did more of what I felt important than my current practice. Roger Ailes at the then fledgling Fox News Channel gave me a shot….12 years later here I am at ABC.
TSD: I read somewhere that Geraldo Rivera was something of a mentor as you started your media career … yet, you’ve decided not to go with the mustache. Why?
CC: I am a very rare species: the hairless Italian. Geraldo was one of the reasons 20/20 became the venerable brand that it is; he was a pioneer of advocacy journalism.
TSD: Going back to the days when Spiro Agnew suggested Nixon opponents in the media were an “effete corps of impudent snobs,” there has been this sense that NY-DC-LA media types were out of touch with the American mainstream, with fewer cigar chomping blue-collar reporters and more Ivy League journalism students. And that critique hasn’t just come from the right. Your own brother, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suggested New York City-based media aren’t very familiar with people’s lives in the Empire State beyond the five boroughs. What’s your take?
CC: Like most things, there is a measure of accuracy in that. I am no defender of many of the media’s habits. But despite the tendencies for pack behavior or “me-too-ism,” the media is not a monolith…there are many outlets featuring reporting from many perspectives, by people of many shades and stripes. Also, I would caution against assuming you need to be a certain way to see a certain thing; often outsiders and the uninitiated are the best lens for the rest of us.
TSD: You’ve spent time overseas reporting on our military engagements and in Iraq in 2007 you narrowly avoided catastrophe during an attack on your convoy. What did you take away from your experience in Iraq and Afghanistan? And can there be any hope that troubled part of the world will ever find peace?
CC: Avoid bodies wrapped in plastic explosive – is lesson number one. I go to places and situations like that, on occasion, because the experiences allow for the most accuracy and perspective. The goal is to avoid risk, not create it, and the “cowboy” effect of media trying to be “in the shit” with the troops can easily be temerity masked as bravery. The larger point is in what will make the situation “better.” Unless you want to be an occupier…or a colonizer, the situation gets very imbalanced in terms of risk and reward with regard to force. Opportunity is the enemy of extremism. Often the word “freedom” is used, but regardless of the level of political rights, the ability to be educated and conduct commerce seem to go the furthest in quashing the threat of extremism. The question is if a place has no business and no infrastructure, whose job is it to fix that (assuming it is fix-able)? That becomes and increasingly difficult question when the blood and treasure of your own flows so freely and is so precious.
TSD: Over the course of your career, what stories are you are most proud of?
CC: The ones that make people think differently about convictions and cultures and people that they thought they already were able to judge. In short: those that denude prejudice. Those stories are rare in big media which has more business pressure put on it all the time.
TSD: You’re mostly seen as a TV guy but you’ve expanded your own “brand” into digital with an engaging website as well as hosting two weekly digital-only programs. We don’t have to tell you, this is an incredibly dynamic and transformative time in the media business – what do you think the media landscape will look like in five, ten years? Where will a 20/20 – and the costly investigative reporting so critical to its success – fit in that space?
CC: In general, I think it is all good. However, the delivery of the media is separate from the production of journalism. Having blogs, podcasts, cable, etc. do not mean better media, they just mean more. The big media will expand its reach as technology allows it to do so. The challenge is more for the consumer – to judge what is solid information, hard ground, and what is mud. In that analysis the real media outlets will distinguish themselves.
TSD: You must surely think often of Delaware as does everyone who wishes they lived here. When was the last time you visited the First State and what did you do when you were here?
CC: I was at a creditors’ meeting in a bankruptcy working as an attorney. In my experience, if I do not visit a state often that is a good indication, because it means that horrible things are not happening there.