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“I Was Built for the Battle”: Chris Cuomo Is Fighting for His Life on CNN

CNN's Chris Cuomo has parlayed a combative style and a 'both sides' approach into the top-rated broadcast on the third-place network. He's still not satisfied.

Late in January, around 4 a.m. one Saturday, a small platoon of local and state police officers descended on Chris Cuomo’s house in the Hamptons. There’d been a call reporting a “possible shooting and hostage situation.” But, when the cops arrived at the picturesque 3,000-square-foot beach house, all they found was a groggy CNN anchor and his none-too-pleased spouse.

“I’ve got to move because it spooked my fucking wife,” Cuomo says, describing how the “SWATing” — the practice of harassing public figures with false police reports — pushed him into putting his weekend retreat on the market in February (for $2.9 million). “I have people fucking threatening me on a regular basis. … That’s a whole new reality for me.”

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Since he took his spot behind the anchor desk on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time 10 months ago, the 48-year-old has been dealing with a bunch of new realities. If cable news is trench warfare, Cuomo occupies the ideological no man’s land, somewhere between Fox News’ Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (each of whom has pulled in about 3.1 million viewers a night this year), making him the only 9 p.m. anchor to draw fire from both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals get angry at him for giving airtime to Kellyanne Conway and hyper-partisans like Trump-boosting Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz. Conservatives get angry at him for pretty much everything else, believing him to be a lefty masquerading as an unbiased truth-teller.

But that’s territory that Cuomo — the son of the late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and brother of the current governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats — is comfortable defending. And he’s doing a pretty decent job of it; his combative, “Let’s Get After It” approach has helped make him the top-rated host, with 1.3 million viewers, on the third-place network. “Testing others is my commodity,” he says. “Maddow’s a professor, Hannity’s a preacher. … I was built for the battle.”

Cuomo never intended to be on television. “My father was heartbroken when I went into journalism,” he says on a recent Tuesday morning, leaning back on a sofa in the living room of the Upper East Side apartment where he lives with his wife, Cristina, founder and editor of the online wellness magazine The Purist, and their three children. “He saw the media as a misused political apparatus that was in the business of gotchas and penny-ante interests, without concern for real policy or real implications — especially TV [media].”

And yet, after attending Yale and earning a law degree from Fordham University, Cuomo went into the business anyway. Encouraged by one of his dad’s speechwriters, the late Tim Russert (“He raised me,” Cuomo says), he did a few on-camera spots on CNBC until he landed a gig at Fox News, where he caught the eye of Roger Ailes and eventually became a correspondent. “Go work for Roger,” Cuomo says Russert told him over lunch one day when he was considering making the move.

In 2000, Cuomo left Fox News for ABC, later joining Good Morning America as a news anchor and covering Hurricane Katrina and the war in Afghanistan. In 2009, he became a co-anchor on 20/20, fronting stories on heroin addiction and homeless teens.

“I threw away a huge opportunity when I was at Fox,” Cuomo says. “Roger told me when I was leaving, ‘You will never be anywhere else what I would make you here, because you will be the only one of your kind here.’ He said, ‘If you stay, you’re going to wind up being a big deal here on Fox News.’ I just didn’t want to do it that way. And, I don’t even know if he was telling the truth.”

When newly installed CNN president Jeff Zucker poached Cuomo in 2013 to co-host an early-morning show that would become New Day, it was considered a gamble — would Cuomo’s combative style be too abrasive for sleepy viewers? Not so. “We beat Morning Joe‘s ass 2.5 of the seasons that I was there,” Cuomo notes. “We beat [Joe Scarborough] even though he had his head way up Donald Trump’s ass through the campaign and kept having him on the show.”

In June 2018, Zucker decided that Cuomo was ready for the challenge of hosting in primetime and gave him Anderson Cooper’s second hour to make his own. By the time he launched his show, cable news was struggling to keep up with a president who could produce headlines faster than they could type them into chyrons. So far, Cuomo has thrived on the chaos, even if the ratings aren’t where he wants them to be. “I respect my competition because I have to respect their success,” he says. “Who am I to shit-talk them? Any metric you want — relevance, ratings — they’re kicking my ass. We are the underdog. I am OK with that.”

Zucker says Cuomo’s show is “everything we hoped it would be” and wishes he would cut himself some slack. “He’s way too hard on himself,” he says. “He’s a competitor. He wants to win in the first inning of the game. We’re not even out of the first inning of this program.”

Even a longtime producer at a rival network grudgingly acknowledges Cuomo’s success, saying, “He’s actually doing a much better job than most people ever thought he would do.”

But, Cuomo’s pugilistic style is not for everyone. “He’s just going for the simplistic, gladiatorial battle,” says one longtime television news executive. “It seems as if the show is always cast to set him up as the warrior against some conservative straw man.”

Cuomo generates strong opinions among those who know him and those who don’t. His chumminess with presidential counselor Conway, for instance, drives many Trump critics nuts, including the one with the 10 p.m. time slot on CNN. “I think you should hear from all sides,” says anchor Don Lemon, who jokingly refers to his friend and colleague as “Both Sides Cuomo” during their over-the-top hand-over segments (recently, for no apparent reason, they sang a duet of the All in the Family theme song). “If the side is propaganda and lies, I don’t think you need to hear that.”

But, Lemon clarifies, “That’s no criticism of my colleague. We just do things differently. And I respect what he does; and, he’s earned the right to do it; and, I wish him the best; and, I want him to keep doing it the way he does it.”

Cuomo’s been asked to defend his frequent, never-ending Conway interviews so often he has several explanations teed up, from the philosophical to the logistical. “My defense is this: Kellyanne is a personal friend of mine,” he says. “I care about her. … I care about her family, OK? I have personal affection for her. I understand why people are upset about what she says. Knowing that, you tell me: Who is a more rigorous questioner of Kellyanne than I am?” Besides, he adds, “We’d take anybody from the White House at any time. They won’t come.”

The two go back 25 years, to when Cuomo was first breaking into TV. Conway describes their relationship as “longtime friends, always platonic, always rooting for each other, raised very similarly” and recalls escorting a younger Cuomo to meet CNBC executives. As for the backlash to her Prime Time appearances (which she confirms are watched and commented on by the president), “That’s not a Chris problem,” she says. “That’s a CNN issue. [CNN viewers] don’t want to hear the other side. … I don’t think he books me — and I don’t go on there — because we’ve been friends for many years, and I don’t go on because it’s ‘good TV,’ as many people say it is. It’s because [he is] willing to invite the White House opinion on his show.”

Other conservatives, though, see Cuomo as more ideological than he lets on. “He does not like it when I refer to him as a pundit,” says Gaetz, who likes Cuomo personally and views sparring sessions on his show as a “healthy stress test” for his policy arguments. “I believe Chris has an opinion, has a viewpoint and uses his platform to reflect his views.” Conservative Beltway insider Matt Schlapp, a frequent Cuomo punching bag, agrees that he’s fair but says, “He clearly has a point of view.”

As far as Zucker is concerned, though, Cuomo is making all the right enemies. “He never backs down from a fight,” he says. “That’s what makes him the perfect cable news anchor.”

Asked if he supports Cuomo’s more controversial bookings, including Conway, Zucker responds, “Would they be on CNN if I wasn’t supportive? I’m not trying to be cute. Of course I’m supportive. You can’t run a news channel and you can’t do a show if you don’t talk to all sides.”

The executive is also confident the ratings will come. “Eighty percent of the audience still doesn’t know who he is,” he says. “We all talk about [ratings] and traffic in it and live in it. That’s not the real world. Most of the world doesn’t know who Chris Cuomo is. It takes time. You build over time.”

While Cuomo says he’s always been told that he’s “hard to manage,” Zucker hasn’t found that to be the case. “I find no evidence of that,” he says.

Because “things are going well for us, optically,” Cuomo says his agent has been approached about other TV jobs, particularly at the broadcast networks. He recites the pitch: “Go to the bigger shows. There aren’t a lot of guys like you.”

But broadcast news shows, particularly light-hearted morning fare, don’t interest him, despite their larger audiences. It’s an issue of political relevance. “Anderson Cooper is a hell of a lot bigger than any male anywhere on network television,” he says. “I would argue that Chuck Todd ain’t Jake Tapper. Jake Tapper has a much bigger footprint in politics than Chuck Todd does.”

With a cable news power-watcher in the White House, he thinks that cable news is the place to be. Besides, he asks, “Who matters more than CNN?”

Cuomo is as intense off the air as he is on the air, but also friendly, generous and, for the most part, gracious — although later in the evening, at the CNN studio, he gets a bit cranky when he’s told before a broadcast that they’re running out of Cuomo Prime Time coffee mugs. “How hard is it to order coffee cups?” he grouses at his crew. “That’s not like my mother’s fucking china.” But when he leaves, shortly after 10 p.m., he takes a moment to greet the building’s security guard. “Thanks for keeping us safe,” he says mid-stride.

He seems reasonably happy to have THR spend the better part of a day trailing him, but he makes it clear he’s generally not happy with the coverage he receives and doesn’t want more of it. “People want to write about us. I’m really against it,” he says. “What’s the story? ‘Son of Cuomo, brother of Cuomo. Is he going to get into politics? People say he should run. … He’s in the middle. Nobody really wants to own him. He’s kind of an outsider, but he’s an insider.’ It’s the same fucking story every time.”

Still, he’s a good enough sport to let this reporter join him in his 13-year-old son Mario’s bedroom, where Cuomo spends most afternoons recording a call-in radio show for SiriusXM. “He gets upset when I move his shit around,” Dad says, picking up and playing with a toy gun as he makes animated points about a breaking college admissions scandal that he catches up on by swiping through an iPhone that says “Good Vibes Only” on the back. (Cuomo, who signed a one-year contract with SiriusXM, says he’s not sure if he wants to continue the show beyond that.)

Over hours of conversation, at his apartment, at a diner near his son’s school, and at the CNN studio before his show, Cuomo never once utters the phrase “off-the-record,” even as he strays into topics of conversation that his publicist might not like.

Cable news hosts are obligated to be active on social media, but Cuomo is uniquely prolific, posting longer, more introspective captions than anyone else on Instagram for his 181,000 followers. His love of martial arts — when he’s not tending to a herniated disc in his back — is also well documented (he mentions it frequently on CNN), as is his affection for Lemon; the anchors text each other on weekends and often hang out. “For colleagues, we’re as close as you can get,” says Lemon. “He’s a very likable guy. You can’t not like Chris, right?”

But, the trouble Cuomo stirs up at his anchor desk sometimes follows him home. About a month after the Hamptons raid, his name was found on the kill list of a white supremacist who’d been collecting guns and preparing a rampage before being captured by police.

He thinks that President Trump’s attacks on the media have put a target on members of the press. “The president has created that dynamic, and he knows he has,” he says.

Cuomo says his friends keep advising him to shed the cable news spotlight before it’s too late. “The number one thing they say to me is, ‘Get out,'” he says. “‘You’ve done enough. Nobody thought that you should leave ABC and go to CNN. You did great in the morning. Nobody said you should go at night. You’ve killed it. But they’re going to kill you. Get out. It’s a fucking death sentence.'” He’s not swayed. “I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do,” he says. But, he says, his wife feels differently. “She’s not happy about any of this shit,” he adds. “If I were to get out of this, she would have no complaints.”

A version of this story also appears in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.