The Media Today

Andrew Cuomo’s narrative whiplash

February 16, 2021

Last week, Bernadette Hogan, Carl Campanile, and Bruce Golding, of the New York Post, dropped a story that was damning of Andrew Cuomo, the state’s Democratic governor. The trio reported that Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, admitted, in a recent conference call with senior New York Democrats, that officials failed to provide state lawmakers with data on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes last year because they feared that the figures would give then-President Trump ammunition for mean tweets and a federal investigation. “Basically,” DeRosa said on the call, “we froze.” She said she was sorry for putting Democratic colleagues in a tough political position, but her apology failed to mollify numerous people on the call; Ron Kim, an assemblyman from Queens whose uncle likely died of COVID in a nursing home last April, told the Post that “it’s not enough how contrite they are with us. They need to show that to the public and the families—and they haven’t done that.” State lawmakers are considering stripping Cuomo of the emergency powers that they granted him at the start of the pandemic. Over the weekend, the Post’s editorial board called for a federal investigation of the “nursing home coverup,” and slapped a photo of Cuomo on the front page under the banner headline, “CORRUPT.”

The controversy around New York nursing home death data goes back months; Cuomo has long faced scrutiny for his decision (which he has long attributed to federal guidance) to send nursing home residents who had been hospitalized with COVID back to their facilities. The state initially withheld information not only from lawmakers, but also from news outlets and civic groups; after the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, sued the state health department under freedom of information laws last year, officials pledged to release relevant data, but, according to the center, they dragged their feet on doing so. Then, in late January, Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, claimed, in a report, that the state may have undercounted COVID-linked nursing home deaths by as much as fifty percent—a result of its decision to register residents who died in hospital as hospital deaths, regardless of where they may have contracted the virus. Hours after the report was published, Dr. Howard Zucker, New York’s health commissioner, added nearly four-thousand deaths to the nursing home tally, bringing the total close to thirteen-thousand. (It has since increased again.) Zucker denied that there had been any coverup, noting that no deaths had gone unrecorded, and claiming that the state had always been transparent about its counting practices. The next day, Cuomo said at a press conference that it didn’t much matter where residents had died because, ultimately, “the people died.” (At one point, he said the words “Who cares?”; he was asserting the relative unimportance of stats in light of mass death, but the Post and others nonetheless had a field day with his clumsy wording.)

Related: Glowing coverage of Cuomo also raises difficult questions

Yesterday, Cuomo spoke again at a press conference, and addressed the controversy around DeRosa’s remarks. He said that officials had “paused” providing data to state lawmakers so that they might prioritize requests from the federal Justice Department, and that there had likewise been a “delay” in sharing information with the press and the public. (“Everyone was busy,” he said.) He conceded that the state had erred in failing to be more transparent sooner, but again denied any substantive wrongdoing. “The void we created by not providing information was filled with skepticism, and cynicism, and conspiracy theories which furthered the confusion,” he said. “Nature abhors a vacuum. So does the political system. If you don’t provide information, something will provide the information.” The truth, he added, is that “everybody did everything they could.” (This morning, the Post covered the press conference under the front-page headline, “TAILSPIN.”)

New York is far from the only state that has failed to disclose key data on its pandemic response—as I wrote last year, officials in various states withheld information about nursing home deaths, in particular, forcing local news outlets to go to court to obtain it. (After the Miami Herald sued the state of Florida, officials not only refused to release the requested data, but pressured the paper’s law firm, which also counted the state as a client, to drop the case; the Herald hired new lawyers and eventually won.) The big difference here is that Cuomo, unlike other state and local leaders, was relentlessly feted, in the early days of the pandemic, as a model of clear crisis communications. News networks carried his press conferences live nationwide; he won an Emmy for them, and wrote a book about leadership. Pundits and media critics swooned over his playful interviews with his brother, Chris, who is an anchor on CNN. (“No matter how hard you’re working, there’s always time to call Mom”; “The good news is she said you are her second-favorite son, Christopher.”) The New York Times called him the “politician of the moment”; Politico called him a “social media superstar.” #PresidentCuomo trended online. As a result, Cuomo now finds himself on the sharp end not only of media gripes about transparency, but full-scale narrative whiplash. “Cuomo is a mini-Trump,” The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi wrote on Saturday. “It’s always been obvious to anyone paying attention.”

Cuomo has undoubtedly received consistently sharp scrutiny from some quarters; more broadly, it’s natural for journalistic narratives to change over time, especially when damaging new information comes to light. But the GameStop-esque rise and fall of Cuomo’s media stock price contains some uncomfortable lessons for the press. Herd mentality and East Coast bias are surely two of them; New York was, of course, horribly hit in the early part of the pandemic, but governors in states that have suffered since haven’t gotten the Cuomo treatment. In those early days, we were desperate for clear, authoritative communicators—understandably so, both as journalists and as humans—and Cuomo, armed with a dry wit and a bunch of charts, appeared to offer what Trump would not. Even at the time, though, there was ample reason for skepticism about his response; as Ross Barkan wrote for CJR last March, Cuomo initially downplayed the threat of the virus and U-turned on a shelter-in-place order for New York City, yet he faced “relatively few” tough questions about his preparedness. “Why is New York City the next Northern Italy?” Barkan asked. “These are the kinds of questions that will take more than a PowerPoint slide to answer.” In highlighting Cuomo’s communications skills as an asset in and of themselves, too many journalists, especially on the national level, didn’t stop to ask whether he was the best messenger. (As the New Yorker’s Charles Duhigg wrote, Seattle’s first outbreak hit around the same time as New York City’s, and officials there privileged fast action and the advice of public-health experts.) Nor did they focus enough on what Cuomo might not be telling us.

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On Sunday, CNN’s Jake Tapper excoriated Cuomo in his closing monologue on State of the Union. “Where those people died and why they died and if they died because of Cuomo’s March directive, that is information in the public interest,” Tapper said, in response to Cuomo downplaying the importance of death-location data. “And fear of political enemies using the data against you, that’s not an excuse for covering it up from the public.” Tapper also noted that Cuomo has declined dozens of his requests for an interview. I’d suggest that Tapper ask Chris Cuomo if he can borrow his brother. But Andrew hasn’t been on his show in a while either.

Below, more on Cuomo and New York:

  • “I don’t really trust the experts”: Recently, Cuomo was criticized for remarks he made at a press conference distancing himself from the advice of career public-health officials. “When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts,” he said. “Because I don’t.” Around the same time, the Times reported that at least nine top health officials in New York state have quit their posts in recent months. “The drumbeat of high-level departures in the middle of the pandemic came as morale plunged in the Health Department and senior health officials expressed alarm to one another over being sidelined and treated disrespectfully,” the paper wrote.
  • More from Barkan: In his CJR piece last year, Barkan, who has covered Cuomo for years, explained how the governor’s office deals with the press. “Reporters who write critically of Cuomo know they can expect an angry administration phone call,” Barkan wrote. “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.” (Barkan has also written for CJR on his failed campaign to become a New York state senator, and what the experience taught him about journalism.)
  • “Media-created monsters”: Writing for Jacobin, David Sirota (who previously worked for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign) and Andrew Perez argue that the media “used its magical mythmaking and storytelling powers to conjure two towering political heroes for a country in crisis” last year: Cuomo and the Lincoln Project, a never-Trump conservative group that has recently become embroiled in a web of crises. “Will this be a moment of accountability?” Sirota and Perez ask. “Or will it go the other way? Will it be a moment when media organizations permanently establish that infrastructure of impunity, to the point where a governor can now get away with hiding a death toll and a GOP political group can retain its megaphone amid a sordid harassment scandal?”
  • Meanwhile, in New York City: With the race to succeed Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City kicking into high gear, so, too, is media coverage of the runners and riders. The Times has undertaken to profile all the major candidates; last week, it published the first of those pieces, on Raymond McGuire. The City, meanwhile, announced on Sunday that it is launching Civic Newsroom, a project that will aim “to better understand what voters want and need to know, find that information, and share it to help us get through the next few months of a fast-moving, confusing and crucial local election season.”

Other notable stories:

  • Trump’s impeachment may be over, but lawmakers aren’t done investigating the events of January 6: Congressional committees will soon grill agency heads involved in the response, and Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, pledged yesterday to establish an independent, 9/11-style commission with broad powers to pursue witness testimony. In other insurrection news, Ryan J. Reilly reports, for HuffPost, that the FBI wants photos of suspects to go viral online as it seeks help identifying them. And Parler, an app popular with Trump fans, is back online a month after Amazon refused to continue hosting it.
  • For CJR, Philip Eil assesses how the Trump era stress-tested the Freedom of Information Act. “It’s hard to find any statistical category where the Trump administration cleared even the low bar set by Obama,” Eil writes. “FOIA rejections and redactions increased under Trump, while delays grew at most federal agencies and the number of FOIA lawsuits skyrocketed.” Adam Marshall, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Eil, “Just about by any measure, things have gone from bad to worse.”
  • Yesterday, as a winter storm tore across the South, the Houston Chronicle informed print subscribers that they may not get their paper today due to power cuts and bad driving conditions. “Even during Hurricane Harvey, our facility never lost power and we never stopped producing the print edition,” it wrote, “but each weather emergency brings its own twists.” Delivery of the Austin American-Statesman has been disrupted, too.
  • More than three years ago, the Wichita Eagle, in Kansas, requested body-camera footage linked to two local police scandals: a hit and run involving an off-duty officer, and the arrest of an Iraqi-American man for depositing a legal check at a bank. Last week, a judge ruled that Wichita police “acted in bad faith and without a reasonable basis in law” in withholding the footage, and must now share it with the Eagle. The AP has more.
  • In Australia, Seven West Media struck a deal that will see Google pay to include Seven West content in its News Showcase feature; Google already signed up several smaller outlets, and is in talks with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Nine Entertainment, and The Guardian. The deals are occurring against the backdrop of government efforts to compel Google and Facebook to pay for news. The Sydney Morning Herald has more.
  • For CJR, Maddy Crowell reports on India’s efforts to force Twitter to suspend accounts that recently criticized the government; Twitter initially complied, but then restored the accounts. Crowell asks whether Twitter “has created a double standard: while in the West Twitter is being used to silence populist, right-wing leaders like Trump, in countries like India it’s being deployed by an authoritarian government to suppress its critics.”
  • Last week, the government of Cuba published a list of jobs—including independent journalism—that will be exempted from a planned expansion of the country’s private sector. In prohibiting the creation of private outlets, Cuba is technically barring an activity that was previously permitted—but as Nora Gámez Torres writes, for the Miami Herald, press freedom in the country has long been curtailed by harassment and other laws.
  • Lucy Kassa, a journalist in Ethiopia, writes for the LA Times about the retaliation she has faced for reporting on the government’s offensive in the Tigray region; last week, a group of men ransacked Kassa’s home and threatened to kill her, and officials put out a statement discrediting her work. “I no longer feel safe here,” Kassa writes. “I worry the men might return, searching for more evidence of a war Ethiopia has tried to keep quiet.”
  • And the journalism world is mourning Albor Ruiz and James Ridgeway, both of whom died recently. Ruiz, who was eighty, wrote about the Latinx community, immigration, and his native Cuba in columns for the New York Daily News and other outlets. Ridgeway, who was eighty-four, was a prolific investigative reporter and correspondent who, per the Times, “attacked malfeasance and skulduggery in American life with a passion.”

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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.