The Media Today

As Andrew Cuomo teeters, the Albany Times Union has a moment

August 10, 2021

Last week—as newspapers around New York State called on Andrew Cuomo, the governor, to resign after an official investigation concluded that he harassed eleven women—Cuomo’s local paper, the Albany Times Union, went a step further. Its editorial board pointed out that it had already called for Cuomo to quit in early March, after his administration was found to have lied about COVID deaths in nursing homes; the board wrote last week that it did not expect Cuomo to take its advice now since “he is clearly beyond shame,” and instead called on the state assembly to impeach him without further, taxpayer-subsidized delay. “We are encouraged by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s statement that the report’s findings are ‘gut-wrenching,’ but now is the time to display actual guts,” the board wrote. “The less-compromised staff of the Executive Chamber deserve a workplace free from Mr. Cuomo’s toxicity. And New Yorkers deserve a governor who can devote their attention to the job instead of to their own appetites.”

The report that the state attorney general’s office published last week laid out the grim details of this workplace toxicity, on the part of both Cuomo and his more-compromised executive staff. It also detailed how the Times Union found itself on the receiving end of such toxicity. The report found that Cuomo harassed a state trooper whom he had personally picked to serve on his protective detail, even though, at the time, she did not meet the length-of-service requirement for such a role. In December, Brendan J. Lyons, a managing editor at the Times Union, found out about the end run around the requirement and asked the New York State Police for a clarification. The police, after consulting with Cuomo’s office, not only denied that an exception had been made, but suggested that Lyons’s line of inquiry was an “insult” to the trooper’s abilities. Meanwhile, Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, called Casey Seiler, the Times Union’s top editor, and angrily accused him of trying to reduce the trooper’s hiring to “being about looks. That’s what men do.” Cuomo himself then called Seiler and played good cop.

New from CJR: The World’s Northernmost Alt-Weekly Moves South

Also in December, Lindsey Boylan, a former Cuomo aide, publicly accused the governor of harassment; afterward, Cuomo staffers sent confidential personnel files detailing complaints against Boylan to a number of news outlets, including the Times Union. Then, in early March, Lyons ran a story about another, unnamed Cuomo aide who claimed that the governor groped her, and whose account would also later appear in the attorney general’s report. In the days after Lyons’s story ran, DeRosa called Seiler and Lyons and again offered to send them “something off the record.” According to a transcript of the call, which was recorded without the journalists’ knowledge, Lyons responded that he didn’t want whatever it was, just as he hadn’t wanted Boylan’s files when he’d been offered those. Seiler, for his part, replied, “Ugh, no, no! Not off the record,” then put his foot down after DeRosa offered to send the information “on the record,” but with the proviso that “you won’t publish it unless I’m OK with it” being published. “No, don’t send us anything unless it’s on the record, Melissa,” Seiler said. “OK?”

Unlike DeRosa (who has since resigned from her post) and Cuomo (who, still, has not), the Times Union has come out of the report very well. “For the 165-year-old newspaper rooted in a county with fewer residents than Staten Island, the Cuomo scandal is a rare moment of wider attention,” Azi Paybarah noted, in a great profile of the paper for the New York Times. The Times Union “has stuck to its old-fashioned principles. No going off the record unless absolutely necessary. Minimal schmoozing with sources. Don’t let your inbox dictate how you’re going to spend your day.” As Paybarah notes, these principles have won the paper high praise in recent days. Even critics have conceded its “very strong” Cuomo coverage. Seiler’s sharp dismissal of DeRosa’s off-the-record request went viral on media Twitter: Audrey Cooper, the editor in chief of WNYC, said that every journalist should commit his words to memory; the writer Luppe B. Luppen called him “a journalism hero.” The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner interviewed Seiler, as did CNN’s Brian Stelter. Seiler told both that he doesn’t typically discuss off-the-record conversations, but, in light of the report, “I think that prohibition has been lifted.”

There is, as Paybarah and others have suggested, something pleasingly old school about the Times Union’s approach to the Cuomo story. But at a moment of profound media-industry debate—that cuts, in caricature at least, down generational lines—as to the value of traditional journalistic norms and practices, it’s worth noting that what’s good about the paper’s journalism, as presented in the report, is not old-schoolness, in itself, but its strict critical distance from power, a value that many of the industry’s would-be reformers are trying to reassert, not muddy. The traditional norms that are out of date—principally strict “objectivity,” at least as the term is understood by its critics—are those, like “bothsidesism,” that serve to dilute accountability, not those that bolster it. Much of the Times Union’s recent Cuomo coverage has clearly been in the best traditions of accountability journalism—both on the news side of the paper, and, in much more scathing language, on its editorial page.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The Times Union’s coverage has also been a clear testament to the value of investment in local reporting—the paper still has at least three reporters and a reporting fellow covering the New York Capitol at any one time, in an era of economic retrenchment for local news that has left statehouses around the country woefully undercovered. In March, Lyons was the first journalist to report the groping allegation against Cuomo; in April, he was the first journalist to interview the accuser, on the condition of anonymity. This week, the Times Union spoke with her again, and named her as Brittany Commisso after she chose—following Cuomo’s public denial of her claim—to put her name on the record. This time, the paper partnered on the story with CBS News, whose reporter Jericka Duncan traveled to the Times Union building to interview Commisso on camera. Their sitdown was broadcast yesterday, on CBS This Morning. The best of the local often becomes national.

Below, more on Cuomo and the Times Union:

  • Media on media: Margaret Sullivan, a media critic at the Washington Post, contrasts the Times Union’s coverage of Cuomo with CNN’s failure to discipline Chris Cuomo, Andrew’s brother, who was named in the report as having advised the governor on his response to the sexual-harassment allegations and yet did not once mention the story on air last week. Chris Cuomo has “failed to maintain the most basic of journalistic principles, which are independence, fairness and impartiality,” and CNN “let the star host get away with it,” Sullivan writes. “The lessons? One of them is clearly this: National prominence and media-outlet size have exactly zero to do with ethical behavior.”
  • Media on media on media: Erik Wemple, also of the Post, took Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, to task for “whitewashing” the Chris Cuomo controversy on air “in a way that had to delight the network’s PR operations.” Stelter referred to the controversy as “a more complicated story than you might think,” and “a conundrum for CNN that has no perfect answer, no perfect solution.” But “there is nothing at all ‘complicated’ about the story,” Wemple writes. Stelter also referred to Chris Cuomo’s ratings last week, adding that he “tuned out the family drama and led compelling interviews during Cuomo Prime Time, all while dealing with has to be one of the hardest periods of his adult life.” Wemple wondered when was “the last time that Stelter excused some atrocity at Fox News by pointing to the network’s killer ratings.”
  • Beyond the media: In addition to Chris Cuomo, the report noted that Alphonso David—a former aide to Andrew Cuomo who now leads the Human Rights Campaign, America’s biggest LGBTQ+ rights groups—advised the governor on his response to sexual-harassment allegations, including by digging out Boylan’s personnel files. Yesterday, the boards of the HRC and its associated foundation announced an external investigation of David’s conduct. Roberta Kaplan—the chair of Time’s Up, an advocacy group for survivors of sexual abuse—was named as having consulted with Cuomo’s team on a proposed op-ed (that was never published) aimed at eviscerating Boylan’s credibility. Yesterday, Kaplan resigned.

Some news from the home front:
Today, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, in partnership with CJR, will release the third and fourth episodes of How We Got Here, a new podcast for journalists exploring how history and identity shape narrative. In the podcast, six Columbia journalism professors will examine how race, gender, class, immigration, and American empire impact the stories we cover and how we tell them. In the third episode, Sheila Coronel speaks with Daniel Immerwahr and Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez about the “long tradition of imperial denial” in the US. In the fourth episode, Dale Maharidge speaks with Dr. Sherry Linkon about how to cover the working class. You can find out more, and listen, here.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Humility, the media, and the pandemic

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.