The media’s role in the Cuomo myth

The reckoning for Governor Andrew Cuomo arrived last week. Beset by sexual harassment and assault allegations exhaustively detailed in a report from the state attorney general, Cuomo announced his resignation on August 10, leaving office to avoid, like Richard Nixon, a devastating impeachment. The many Democrats and Republicans who had clashed with Cuomo over the decade celebrated. Others wondered how Cuomo maintained power for so long, considering the workplace culture that he fostered and the number of people he had alienated. 

But the role the media played in his popularity and dominance remains unexamined. A year ago, Cuomo was perhaps the most famous and well-regarded governor in America, praised for  press conferences that guided terrified New Yorkers through the early weeks of the pandemic. As a foil to the reckless and incendiary President Donald Trump, Cuomo shone, offering an alternative version of leadership for millions of people. 

Cuomo’s popularity, in one sense, was organic. Many people genuinely derived comfort from his steady cadence and PowerPoint presentations. There is no doubt he appeared in charge and eventually offered, in March and April of 2020, necessary information to the public. 

But Cuomo’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was objectively a failure. New York, to date, still has the second highest death rate in America, despite successive waves and the emergence of the Delta variant now ravaging many southern states. COVID-19 tore through nursing homes and healthcare facilities, with Cuomo’s administration masking the true death toll there until the state attorney general, in 2021, forced him to revise it greatly upward. 

Two other early COVID-19 hotbeds, Seattle and San Francisco, suffered far fewer losses, thanks to their fast-acting executives and strong coordination between governors and local leaders. Jay Inslee and London Breed, however, never became household names. They never graced the covers of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. They never won an Emmy. 

Cuomo’s enormous popularity in the early stages of the pandemic granted him enough residual goodwill to survive the first wave of scandal in February and March, to not resign when senators and representatives like Chuck Schumer and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told him to leave. And this was possible because the media, at every turn, fueled the Cuomo myth. 

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It must be made clear what is meant here by media: almost all of it, including cable TV and prestige newspapers and magazines. The New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC all helped inflate Cuomo’s reputation, along with other mainstream publications. CNN, most notoriously, allowed Chris Cuomo, the governor’s brother, to interview him repeatedly in prime-time. Since Cuomo is a Democrat, conservative media, by virtue of political polarization, didn’t play along. The New York Post would’ve probably done less accountability journalism and scathing headlines if Donald Trump Jr. governed New York. 

One chief problem of the Cuomo coverage was the focus on aesthetics over substance. Journalists and columnists preferred to lavishly praise Cuomo for holding press conferences and appearing strong while overlooking his actual policy decisions, including a belated statewide shutdown as COVID-19 rapidly spread. 

For reasons that never became clear, early coverage all but entirely neglected Cuomo’s most perplexing comments about coronavirus: how he, like Trump, compared it to the common flu and argued that it was not a grave threat at all. “The facts here actually reduce the anxiety,” Cuomo said on March 11, 2020, the same day the NBA decided to suspend its season. “How many people died in the United States from the flu last year? Roughly 80,000 from the flu. So, again, perspective.” 

Remarkably, the media celebration of Cuomo began right away. The otherwise prescient and level-headed Ben Smith—he has, undoubtedly, reinvigorated the New York Times media column that the late David Carr popularized—wrote on March 16th, 2020 that Cuomo has “emerged as the executive best suited for the coronavirus crisis,” comparing him favorably to Trump and Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City. The column, unfortunately entitled “Andrew Cuomo Is the Control Freak We Need Right Now,” praised the governor for rather pedestrian reasons. “Mr. Cuomo holds news conferences filled with facts and (accurate) numbers almost every day,” Smith wrote. “He explains systems and challenges and decision-making with a command that Mr. Trump lacks. He even models social distancing by having speakers stay six feet apart from one another.” 

The late Jim Dwyer, an otherwise lauded Times columnist who had grown close to Cuomo in recent years, used his valuable space in the newspaper to help propagate an overlooked but crucial narrative to the Cuomo mythos: the chaos in the hospital system was not the governor’s fault. In May 2020, Dwyer reported that Elmhurst, a besieged public hospital in Queens, had failed to coordinate with other wealthier, private hospitals over accepting coronavirus patients. Dwyer correctly noted that hospital organizations have existed as relative fiefdoms, rarely interacting with one another. 

But rather than blame the governor of New York, who oversees the hospital system and sets healthcare policy for the state, Dwyer copiously quoted from Cuomo aides who argued it was only their intervention that staved off further disaster. “Within days, the state created one in the form of an early warning system, a live daily map of conditions at each hospital, regardless of who operated it,” Dwyer wrote. “The dashboard hacked together by Mr. Cuomo’s aides did not create a permanently integrated health system by any measure, but it allowed New York at the worst of the pandemic to make the most — or, at least, more — of what the state had.”

None of this was false, but Dwyer never answered a key question in the piece—why did a governor who had been in power for a decade fail to overhaul such a dysfunctional healthcare system? There was no mention of Cuomo’s single-minded focus on shuttering money-losing healthcare facilities in low-income areas, thus cutting down on the ICU capacity that would come back to haunt New York when coronavirus struck. The column was, perhaps, a prime example of access journalism leading to less accountability; the Cuomo aides likely would not have participated in such a piece if they knew Dwyer would challenge their core arguments. 

The Times, while beginning to report aggressively on Cuomo in the early months of the pandemic, nevertheless printed pieces that further burnished his hagiography. In May 2020, the same month Dwyer’s piece ran, the Times commissioned a glowing profile of the most powerful member of the Cuomo administration, Melissa DeRosa. “Competence is captivating. No need to tell viewers tuning in to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s daily media briefings,” Ruth La Ferla, the reporter, began. “Others are increasingly focused on the woman usually seated at his left.” 

The profile—“Who Can Say ‘No’ to Cuomo? His Top Aide, Melissa DeRosa”— was typical of newspaper coverage of Cuomo during that time period, recounting DeRosa’s swift rise in Albany and quoting several people in politics praising her work ethic. La Ferla veers into flattery, noting that DeRosa’s “robust command of facts” and her discipline “like a drill sergeant.” DeRosa, she wrote, “leaves few details unattended and almost nothing to chance, blitzing her team of 79 state commissioners and all senior staff members each morning with questions.”

“A wearying schedule hasn’t dampened her longstanding interest in the realm of style. She was a determinedly girly girl, her friend [Rachel] Berman recalled,” La Ferla reported. ‘Growing up, everything in the closet was a shade of pink, with pearls,’ she said.”

DeRosa, known to most in politics as Cuomo’s enforcer and the person who enabled a workplace culture that the state attorney general, in 2021, would call “toxic” and full of “fear, intimidation, and retribution,” announced her resignation in August, two days before her boss. Though the AG report brought new details to light, the general tenor of the Cuomo administration—DeRosa and other top aides berating underlings and journalists alike—was well-known for years. (A month after the Times story appeared, DeRosa appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar as one of its “voices of hope.”)

Gauzy coverage of Cuomo persisted for months. When the governor decided, in June 2020, to break his streak of 111 consecutive days addressing the state about coronavirus, media outlets were overwhelmingly laudatory, even though New York’s COVID-19 death toll, at the time, was the highest in the country. “He played equal parts leader and father figure at times,” said NY1’s Jamie Stelter as the network ran a clip-show of Cuomo’s remarks. “He always told it like it is.” 

“The thing about this Jamie is that you can separate the politics from the showmanship and the commitment to New York State,” replied NY1’s Pat Kiernan. “A lot of people disagree with some of the decisions Andrew Cuomo has made but I think it’s pretty easy to agree that there was a great commitment on the part of him and his team to get out there every single day.” 

Ultimately, many news outlets, including NY1 and the Times, undertook necessary, watchdog coverage of Cuomo. The Times, in particular, broke important stories. Local and national media rigorously reported on Cuomo’s many scandals, including his alleged sexual harassment and assault. Ultimately, some sense of balance returned. 

But the question must be asked, as we move through this crisis and prepare to confront new ones, why the early coverage of Cuomo neglected so much. Why weren’t harder questions posed? Why did performance matter so much more than policy? It is easy to imagine an alternative, reflexive skepticism from the outset, especially as New York’s coronavirus death toll soared. There was nothing, ultimately, to celebrate. 

 

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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.

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