Glowing coverage of Cuomo also raises difficult questions 

Governor Andrew Cuomo holds a press briefing on Coronavirus on March 20 in Albany | Photo: Darren McGee, Office of the Governor

With more than twenty thousand confirmed covid-19 cases, New York is the American epicenter of the pandemic. The state is effectively locked down. And its governor, Andrew Cuomo, is a media star.

“In Coronavirus Response, Andrew Cuomo Wins Over Past Critics,” read a March 19 Wall Street Journal headline, one of a growing genre of news stories praising Cuomo’s actions during the crisis. Cuomo is “experiencing a reputational renaissance rivaling Rudy Giuliani’s after Sept. 11,” Politico reported a few days later. The New York Times’ media columnist, Ben Smith, declared Cuomo the control freak “best suited for the coronavirus crisis.”

The New York Post, usually savage toward Democrats it covers, ran a story interviewing women about how attractive they found the divorced governor. Jezebel, a feminist blog that skewers those in power, professed a love for Cuomo that the writer attributed, in part, to coronavirus-inspired Stockholm syndrome. #PresidentCuomo trended briefly on Twitter. 

Why has Cuomo become so celebrated? As someone who has covered Cuomo since his first term—he has been in office since 2011 and, thanks to a lack of term limits in New York, probably will be around a while longer—this is a question I have wrestled with over the past two weeks. Until now, Cuomo was never an overwhelmingly popular governor, with approval ratings that seesawed over the years. He has endured criticism from the left for his resistance to raising taxes on the rich, his enduring support for state senate Republicans, his attempt to cut Medicaid funding, and past mismanagement of the subway system. 

He also tended to avoid the national spotlight, and has declined to launch presidential bids or travel much beyond the state. Local press coverage of him has been aggressive, though never to the degree endured by New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, a near-daily target for abuse from the city’s two tabloids. (Though both are Democrats, they have been at odds, with Cuomo as the prime antagonist, since de Blasio took office in 2014.) 

De Blasio’s own response to the covid-19 outbreak has been lackluster and rightly covered as such. While cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco were closing their public schools to contain the outbreak, de Blasio was dithering, despite the protestations of terrified teachers—until he suddenly said, on March 15, he would shut them, not long after Cuomo announced he would invoke his own executive authority to close the city schools. 

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More damningly, de Blasio refused to close bars, restaurants, and public spaces as the virus raged, contradicting the arguments of his own administration officials, some of whom reportedly threatened to resign. On the weekend of March 13, city residents were still crowding bars and restaurants, congregating in ways that, as of today, are illegal. As recently as March 15, shortly before they were ordered shut down, de Blasio told New Yorkers to visit their favorite bars and restaurants. The following day, just as gyms were about to close but long after New Yorkers were urged to avoid them altogether, de Blasio worked out at his Brooklyn YMCA, enraging allies and even his own staff. 

Cuomo’s recent success lies partly in his image: he portrays himself as the motorcycle-riding, automobile-fixing tough guy, a political brawler who is unafraid to confront liberal Democrats. He repeatedly calls himself a “pragmatic progressive.” As someone who has hewed, over the decade, toward the political center on fiscal matters, he has enjoyed the benefit of the doubt from New York’s many center-left and center-right editorial boards—the most liberal major newspaper, the New York Times, still endorsed Cuomo over his left-wing challenger, Cynthia Nixon, in 2018—and the corruption conviction of his top aide, remarkably, didn’t even dominate the front page of the Daily News

Like another power broker of a prior age, Robert Moses, Cuomo draws favorable coverage for his administration’s engineering achievements, like a new bridge, while largely dodging scrutiny for the failure of the city’s subway system, which he effectively controls. He has never been a natural retail politician, and the access journalism he practices is more imperial—and hidden—than the garden variety employed on the national scene. These days, during the covid-19 crisis, he is consenting to on-the-record interviews with journalists and staging daily press conferences, but his traditional approach has been to speak with Albany and political journalists with some frequency off the record, aggressively shaping coverage out of view. He has even been known to appear as an unnamed source in tabloid stories. 

Politico, in explaining Cuomo’s public appeal during the coronavirus crisis, boiled it down to his take-charge demeanor: “It’s a long-standing Albany tradition to mock the PowerPoint presentations he brings to every major speech, but his straightforward explanations of the contagion’s progress and how the state is handling it—with accompanying visuals—are serving as the fireside chats of the pajama-clad masses in an era when laptops are their strongest connection with the outside world.”

There is also the reality of Team Cuomo’s approach to the press. It can pay dividends at a time like this, with journalists hungry for information. Cuomo’s office is frequently in contact with the reporters who cover him, calling to strenuously argue, on and off the record, the administration’s side. It’s not uncommon for Cuomo aides to speak anonymously to reporters to float certain pieces of information or even attack a rival, whether it’s de Blasio, a member of the legislature, or a liberal critic. Local reporters are known to share certain barbed anonymous quotes on Twitter that can, easily enough, be traced to Cuomo’s office. Cuomo’s office will coordinate with surrogates to call a reporter with Cuomo-approved talking points to create the sense of a larger movement behind a certain policy or argument. 

Reporters who write critically of Cuomo know they can expect an angry administration phone call, not usually on the record, before and after publication. I’ve personally been cursed out by Cuomo aides. While this tactic, to an outsider, may seem alienating, it’s a savvier approach to take because journalists prize engagement: they want to know the press office is responsive in some way. And Cuomo aides are known for answering emails and phone calls quickly, even if they find the line of questioning hostile. They go to war without scorching the earth. 

Cuomo’s relationship with the New York press, therefore, is arguably less toxic than de Blasio’s, paving the way for a moment like this one. For good and for ill, reporters are less driven by ideology than relationships. Their memories are long. It’s hard to imagine, even if he rose to the occasion of expertly combating covid-19 and rallying the city behind him, that de Blasio would receive unqualified praise. 

None of this should excuse the media writ large from taking a more critical approach to Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic. There have been relatively few questions since he initially dismissed de Blasio’s call for a shelter-in-place policy for New York City, only to implement almost exactly what the mayor asked for several days later. On Monday, March 16, Cuomo said he would not impose a requirement similar to San Francisco’s, which called for people to stay home as much as possible and closed most businesses: a top Cuomo administration official said there was “no consideration” of de Blasio’s shelter-in-place policy. 

But by Sunday, March 22, a statewide order from Cuomo, known as pause, was doing just that. Cuomo drew praise for his decisiveness.  

Most importantly, the same question must be asked of Cuomo that journalists are rightly demanding of Trump: Why weren’t you more prepared? New York is a global city. Coronavirus was ravaging China in January and was likely to reach the five boroughs. Why wasn’t the state of New York ready to enact harsher policies—closing down schools, businesses, and major gathering places—when the first covid-19 case appeared on March 1

Why, in January, didn’t New York plan for these closures, informing parents that schools might close and businesses couldn’t operate normally? Why was the severity of covid-19 denied, with Cuomo succumbing to public pressure to enact tough measures when it was effectively too late? Why is a governor being praised for his leadership skills when a shelter-in-place order came twenty-two days after the first coronavirus case? Why is New York City the next Northern Italy? These are the kinds of questions that will take more than a PowerPoint slide to answer. 

 

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Ross Barkan is a journalist and writer from New York City. He frequently contributes to the Village Voice and his work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire and Reuters.