Andrew and Chris Cuomo’s media love-ins come back to bite them

Live by the press conference, die by the press conference. Last year, as the pandemic ravaged his state, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, was widely lauded for the way he communicated. Pundits hailed him as authoritative, reassuring, even sexy; national networks carried his press conferences live, and they won a special Emmy award for Cuomo’s “masterful use of television to inform and calm people.” Then, early this year, Cuomo experienced a vicious narrative shift—he was accused first of covering up nursing-home deaths in his state, then of bullying, then of sexual harassment—and his media relations became a lot less open. Even though he met in person with journalists at the beginning of the pandemic (and continued to meet in person with supporters), Cuomo transitioned to remote press conferences, citing public-health grounds, with the first preceding his scandals; as the allegations piled up, his remote briefings became less and less frequent. Journalists who had held Cuomo’s feet to the fire found themselves frozen out. On a press call in April, a reporter asked Cuomo if he would resign should a probe into the sexual-harassment claims conclude that he broke state law. As the reporter pressed for an answer, his mic was cut.

Yesterday, that probe came to a close: the state attorney general’s office published its report on the matter, and it was even more damning than many media observers had expected. The report found that Cuomo did indeed violate both state and federal law, corroborating the claims of eleven women who said that Cuomo touched them without their consent and/or made lewd remarks. Ironically (or perhaps not), the words “press conference” appear thirty-eight times in the report, and are central to some of its most serious revelations. An unnamed executive assistant who said that Cuomo groped her, including under her blouse, told investigators that she was prepared to take her experience “to the grave,” only to become visibly distressed in front of colleagues while watching Cuomo claim, at a press conference in early March, that he had never “touched anyone inappropriately.” A second accuser, Virginia Limmiatis, testified that she decided to come forward as “a direct result” of the same press conference: “He is lying again,” she said. “I am compelled to come forward to tell the truth.” A third woman, an unnamed official at the New York State Department of Health, said that Cuomo made sexual comments to her both before and during a press conference in March 2020, at which she gave him a COVID swab for the cameras. Colleagues of the physician recalled that she was “shocked that the governor had made such a comment on national television,” and concerned that it “would take away from the important public health service” she was trying to perform. Emmy-worthy, indeed.

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After the report dropped, Cuomo responded not with a press conference but with a recorded video statement. Reporters were not given the opportunity to ask questions, but were given plenty to chew on. Cuomo again denied that he has ever touched anyone inappropriately, and accused the investigators of “politics and bias.” At one point, he referenced photos that appeared on A1 of the New York Times showing him touching a woman’s face and kissing her on the cheek; he described the images as “not front-page news,” then displayed a slide deck of pictures showing him similarly kissing other people. “I do it with everyone,” he said. “Black and white, young and old, straight and LGBTQ, powerful people, friends, strangers, people who I meet on the street.” The video did not address some of the more serious allegations against Cuomo. Charlotte Bennett, one of his accusers, dismissed it as “propaganda,” calling it “not only uncomfortable and inappropriate, but downright weird and unnecessary.” Many journalists agreed. Rebecca Baird-Remba, of the Commercial Observer, raised a question as to whether Cuomo “filmed this months ago and it was not edited after the report was released.”

The report was also bad news for one member of the press who has covered Cuomo: his brother, Chris, who is a star anchor on CNN. In May, the Washington Post reported that Chris privately advised Andrew on his response to the sexual-harassment allegations, at one point referring to them as “cancel culture”; the report confirmed that Chris was among a group of advisers that had “ongoing and regular” discussions with Andrew, and reproduced an email chain that appears to show Chris helping to draft a statement on Andrew’s behalf. (“Sometimes I am playful and make jokes… You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times.”) After the Post story dropped, Chris apologized and admitted that his involvement was inappropriate, though he also described himself as “family first, job second.” CNN declined to discipline Chris; the network noted, in a statement, that he hadn’t been involved in the network’s “extensive coverage” of the scandal, in part because “he could never be objective.” As many critics pointed out at the time, a lack of objectivity didn’t seem to concern CNN last year, when Andrew’s stock was high and he appeared regularly on Chris’s show to discuss important stories like COVID and who was mom’s favorite. (The network said it made a brief exception to longstanding rules preventing Chris from covering Andrew, on grounds of “significant human interest.”) As with Andrew’s briefings, a TV format that was hot last spring has come to look grotesque.

Yesterday, CNN again covered the Andrew report extensively. Chris’s involvement was mentioned a handful of times on air, and only then as a limp disclosure that he was interviewed for the report “as someone who reached out and talked to his brother as this crisis was unfolding.” Last night, Cuomo himself came on air and didn’t mention Andrew at all. “We’re focused on COVID here,” he said, opening his show. This was surely an attempt to separate church and state, but it’s worth remembering that COVID coverage is actually central to the Andrew-Chris nexus; as outlets including the Albany Times Union have reported, Andrew secured preferential access to COVID testing for Chris and other relatives in the early part of the pandemic, when tests were scarce for the general public. This revelation has, understandably, received less attention than the conflict of interest around the harassment allegations. While CNN called the latter a “mistake,” the network defended Chris’s testing access, noting that he caught COVID early on and “turned to anyone he could for advice and assistance, as any human being would.”

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The big problem here, aside from basic fairness, is that when Chris got sick, he presented himself as something of a COVID everyman, and won lavish praise for doing so. Every man could not, of course, get a COVID test off his brother, the governor. Taken together, Chris’s testing access and harassment advice reveal a fundamental inconsistency in his show’s self-conception. He is, it seems, permitted to present himself as an average Joe who’s looking out for his family, and an opinionated motormouth, and an “objective” journalist as it suits him. But when you’re related to a powerful politician, these various identities will have very different ramifications for the credibility of your coverage; you can’t simply shuffle between them and expect people to take you seriously. According to CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter, some staffers at the network expressed sympathy for Chris yesterday, on the grounds that “no one chooses their family.” The world is going to need a much smaller violin.

Not that the sympathy was universal. Yesterday, various journalists called on CNN to fire Chris; one CNN staffer even told BuzzFeed that the network’s failure to do so is “a disgrace to journalism.” It doesn’t seem, for now, like there’s much chance of that changing: a former CNN employee told BuzzFeed that “the more prominent you are” at the network, “the less the rules and discipline apply to you,” and that Jeff Zucker, CNN’s president, “has made it clear that he has Chris’s back no matter what.” Andrew might not be so fortunate: he’s made it clear he doesn’t want to quit as governor, but the walls are closing in fast, and his political allies have abandoned him en masse—including, late yesterday, President Biden, who said Cuomo should resign. Biden was pressed for his views at a press conference. As CNN repeatedly reminded its viewers, it was the network’s White House reporter who doggedly solicited them.

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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.