Andrew Cuomo’s Bad Press

Since December, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, has not taken an in-person question from a reporter. Amid compounding crises, Cuomo––who was hailed by much of the national press at the height of New York’s COVID outbreak––has hidden from journalists, under the guise of health and safety protocols. (No matter that he held briefings last spring, when COVID peaked in New York, with reporters allowed inside.) His recent press conferences have been stacked, instead, with supporters

On Monday, Josefa Velásquez, of THE CITY, asked Cuomo when he’d let the press return. “That is purely a function of the COVID safety requirements,” Cuomo responded. As Zach Williams, of City & State NY, pointed out: “You can eat in a restaurant. You can go to sports arenas. Dozens of political supporters can pack within a community center to sing the governor’s praises. But the governor is still sticking by the absurd idea that he is barring reporters out of safety concerns.” Yesterday, Cuomo held an Earth Day event, closed to the press, outdoors. 

Cuomo also hosts conference calls, during which his team pre-selects a small number of reporters who are allowed to ask questions. On a call Wednesday, Ryan Tarinelli, of the New York Law Journal, asked, “If the attorney general’s report concludes that under state law you did sexually harass employees in violation of state law, will you resign? Yes or no?” Cuomo declined to commit to an answer; then, as Tarinelli began to ask for clarification, he was cut off. Cuomo’s spokesperson, Rich Azzopardi, later told the New York Post that staff muted Tarinelli “because reporters are only allowed one ‘follow-up’ under terms of an agreement reached several months ago with Albany’s Legislative Correspondents Association.” But Dan Clark, the host of PBS’s New York Now and formerly the president of the LCA, told the Post, “That did not happen.” And the frequency of the calls is shrinking: according to Marina Villenueve, of the AP, there were only six calls in March, down from seventeen in January. 

It’s no wonder Cuomo is being evasive; the Albany press corps has broken news of scandal after scandal in his office. In January, reports revealed that the state had undercounted nursing home deaths by the thousands. About two weeks later, the Post reported that, on a call between Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, and state lawmakers, she said their team hid the real nursing home data from the Trump administration. Ron Kim, a state assembly member whose uncle died in a nursing home last April, sharply criticized the Cuomo administration in the Post; afterward, Kim said on The View, Cuomo called and threatened to “destroy” him. Soon, the New York Times, Politico, and Gothamist reported on a culture of bullying in the governor’s office. Lindsay Boylan, a former aide, published a Medium post about how Cuomo had sexually harassed her. Then Charlotte Bennett, another former aide, made similar allegations in the Times. Letitia James, the attorney general, opened an investigation into these claims; then Anna Ruch, a former member of the Obama administration and the Biden campaign, spoke to the Times about an “unwanted advance” from Cuomo.

For a week, Cuomo disappeared from the press entirely. Then he apologized. And then Ana Liss and Karen Hinton, two more former aides, accused him of inappropriate behavior, in stories published by the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. An anonymous current aide accused Cuomo of groping her, as reported by the Albany Times Union. Soon, the feds got involved, THE CITY reported, to investigate Cuomo’s handling of the nursing homes. And the state assembly opened an impeachment probe. 

This week, James opened a fourth investigation into Cuomo, this time into the misuse of state resources and staff improperly diverted into writing his 2020 book, which is about “leadership lessons.” The Times-Union published an excerpt, ultimately removed from the final edit, in which Cuomo railed against the Albany press corps in the early months of the pandemic, which killed at least twenty-nine thousand New Yorkers: “After my presentation they would ask a barrage of questions. They would shout, talk over each other, border on the obnoxious, be argumentative and no matter how long I took questions they would yell additional questions at the end of the briefing. Viewers were stunned.” Journalists observed that Cuomo’s treatment of the press was of a piece with his aggression toward women. 

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It now seems that Cuomo, who brands himself as a tough New Yorker (or, as he likes to put it, “a Queens boy”), has chosen to ride the wave of scandal in the hope of it fading out––what some have called the Ralph Northam route––before he’s up for re-election, in 2022. And as campaigning seems to be where Cuomo has turned his attention, it’s worth remembering that even at the height of his power and popularity, he failed to treat women with respect, grew obsessed with his public perception, and worked to actively shield the truth from the press, and from the public.

 

Below, more on New York and the media:

  • On 2022: Eight Republicans have expressed interest in challenging Cuomo for reelection, according to Politico. Lee Zeldin, a Republican congressman from Long Island and an ardent supporter of Donald Trump’s, apparently looks the most promising. He has described MSNBC as “fake news” and, last year, called for the Justice Department to investigate the New York Times for its reporting on Trump’s taxes. Cuomo’s weakened stance is, of course, a boon. At a state GOP event on Monday, per Politico, Marc Molinaro, the Republican candidate for governor in 2018, and most of the other attendees “were able to avoid the barrage of Trump-related questions they have faced for nearly six years.”
  • Also in Albany: After a group set up a camp outside the Albany Police Department to protest brutality, officers showed up in riot gear. Forming a barricade with garbage cans and dumpsters, they gave the demonstrators fifteen minutes to disband, then forcibly dispersed the encampment and arrested eight people.

Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times Company will not voluntarily recognize the union formed by the newspapers’ tech workers last week. Instead, Katie Robertson reported for the Times, the union will have to put the matter to a vote through the National Labor Relations Board. Of the 650 Times employees involved in the tech union effort, Robertson reported, a majority had signed on in favor. The Times newsroom has long been unionized; the NewsGuild called the company’s decision “a sign of disrespect” to the rest of the staff.
  • Last week, the Venezuelan government ordered El Nacional––one of the country’s last independent and most widely read newspapers––to pay Diosdado Cabello, a top ruling party official, more than thirteen million dollars for moral damage and defamation. In 2015, the paper co-published an investigation with a Spanish newspaper into Cabello’s ties to drug trafficking. Yesterday, Miguel Henrique Otero, the president and editor of El Nacional, told the LatAm Journalism Review that he would take the case to “international bodies.” The paper’s lawyer told Reuters, “There is no way” to pay the sum. In 2018, during a period of acute government harassment, El Nacional had to stop printing physical copies, and Otero is now exiled in Spain.
  • And Poynter’s Kristen Hare asks if “newsrooms have to be in newsrooms.” The past year has shown that journalism can be done from anywhere, and many papers are based in historic buildings, which are costly. Nikki Usher, a professor of media at the University of Illinois, replied, “The question is, is that really the image that news organizations need to continue to project to maintain their authority?” Danielle Kilgo, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication, pointed out that rethinking newsrooms also poses an opportunity to deliver equity: “Remote and flexible work helps people normally shut out of traditional office spaces, including caregivers and low-income students who can’t afford low-paying internships,” she said. (For more on working outside the newsroom, read Ruth Margalit’s piece from our latest issue.)

 

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Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR and a reporter and writer based in New York.