On accountability and Andrew Cuomo’s rise-and-fall story

Yesterday morning, Rita Glavin—an attorney for Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, who has vigorously defended her client (including in a fifty-one-minute live interview on CNN) since a state report concluded that he sexually harassed eleven women—came out swinging again in a virtual briefing. Her targets included the media: the press, she charged, had parroted the report’s findings without interrogating them or presenting Cuomo’s side of the story. “I believe in the rule of law,” she said, “not mob mentality and not media mentality.” A short while later, Cuomo himself appeared on camera and defended himself at length against the most damning parts of the report. Then, he resigned as governor. “I am a fighter, and my instinct is to fight through this controversy, because I truly believe it is politically motivated,” he said. But, he continued, “the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing.” Cuomo spoke from his briefing room, where reporters’ seats were occupied by Cuomo staffers. Some of them were in tears.

Online, reporters whirred into gear to relay the bombshell news. (The Twitter account that tracks all-caps headlines in the New York Times was quickly pressed into service, as were punsters who like to predict New York Post headlines; the paper went, in the end, with “AT THE END OF HIS GROPE.”) Cuomo’s announcement took many journalists by surprise—a reflection of Glavin’s defiant remarks, Cuomo’s infamous combativeness, and a broader political climate that has accustomed us to powerful people getting away with their misdeeds. “If you have covered Cuomo even for a short time, it is stunning that he’s stepping down instead of fighting something out,” Maggie Haberman, of the Times, tweeted. “He’s going down claiming innocence but he is not going down fighting.” New York politicos were surprised, too, and their reactions trickled down through news coverage. Ryan Teague Beckwith, a politics reporter at Bloomberg, noted that when he started reporting Cuomo’s political obituary several months ago, “every single source told me that it would never run.” Some pundits seemed not to believe their eyes. On his Cafe Insider podcast, Preet Bharara, a former federal prosecutor who once investigated Cuomo, said that while he does expect Cuomo to step down (as he has promised) in fourteen days, the delay strikes him as “too long a period,” and that he hopes there’s “nothing nefarious” at work. “It may be overly cynical,” he said, “but I believe that Andrew Cuomo was a person of mischief.”

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

Cuomo’s resignation was certainly shocking. But it wasn’t entirely surprising. With the vast majority of his political allies having abandoned him and the State Assembly preparing his impeachment, Cuomo seemed to simply run out of road, an impression supported by early insider accounts of the build-up to his decision. Haberman, who shared a byline on one such account, said on CNN that Cuomo quitting was both surprising and unsurprising, in that, ultimately, “I don’t think he had a choice.” The surprise, Haberman suggested, came in Cuomo’s decision not to fight to the bitter end, a framing that was widespread yesterday; her colleague Matt Flegenheimer tweeted their joint story with the summary: “A relentless man, relenting: how Cuomo decided to give up.” There was also a widespread air of finality in coverage, at least at the topline level, as words like “downfall” and “undoing” recurred in headlines. Various outlets from across the ideological spectrum assessed Cuomo’s “legacy.” As of early this morning, the top headline on the Times’s homepage read: “Cuomo to Resign, Ending a Political Dynasty.”

Much commentary on Cuomo’s resignation situated it within the dramatic sweep of his character arc as traced by the media—sections of which, as recently as early last year, were lionizing him for his authoritative-sounding, reassuring briefings about the pandemic. (“It’s the most precipitous collapse in the history of gubernatorial politics,” Ritchie Torres, a US Congressman from New York, told the Times. “And as with all Greek tragedies, at the heart of it all is hubris.”) When discussing character arcs, it can be tempting to resort to teleology and passive language; as the media critic Dan Froomkin noted yesterday, a story in the Times, for example, said that Cuomo had “succumbed” to “scandal.” But rise-and-fall stories have active drivers—not least the journalists who tell them. As I’ve written before, the national political press played an enormous part in burnishing Cuomo’s reputation last year. It’s tempting to conclude that journalism played as great a part in his reputational decline, and it’s true that excellent reporting—particularly at the local level—held him to account. But national discussion of Cuomo’s scandals was often driven by actors outside of the press: the New York State Attorney General’s office that damned him (not once but twice); the Democratic politicians who turned on him; and, most crucially, the women who spoke out against him. On the whole, many critics say, the media industry does not come out of the Cuomo story in credit. “‘I’m sorry I needlessly inflated Cuomo’s reputation,’ said no politician, pundit, or member of the media,” Ross Barkan, a journalist who has written a book about Cuomo (and, last year, a CJR article against the grain of his lionization), tweeted yesterday. “Atonement for thee, not for me.”

Media self-reflection is clearly warranted at this juncture. But that’s not to say Cuomo’s arc is finished, necessarily. Despite the tone of finality in the toplines, some coverage of Cuomo’s resignation acknowledged that it could be the course of action that gives him the best shot at a comeback; by putting an “end” to his story now, Cuomo has drained pressure—both politically and in terms of media attention—from the impeachment push against him, which could easily have resulted in his disqualification from seeking statewide office in future. (Some state lawmakers want to push ahead with impeachment regardless; as of now, it’s unclear if they’ll get their wish.) Cuomo’s career “was either permanently over or almost permanently over, and he chose the path of almost permanently over,” Chuck Todd said on MSNBC. “We know the way our world works. It’s amazing the people we’ve seen make political comebacks… He wants to live to fight another day.”

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This isn’t to peer into Cuomo’s head, or to say that a comeback is likely. Nor should we reduce the story of his resignation to horse-race politics; we should keep the focus on his misconduct. Nonetheless, the possibility is important to keep in mind. It matters for the accuracy of our framing; while it’s true that Cuomo isn’t being dragged out of office kicking and screaming, “fighting” can involve more subtle maneuvers, like a tactical retreat. It matters, too, for accountability—both in terms of our analysis and definition of the term, and the ongoing need to administer it. It’s tempting to see Cuomo’s resignation as the logical end of his character arc, and thus his story, but real life is messier. Accountability doesn’t begin and end at the gates of the governor’s mansion; indeed, Cuomo continues to face a range of legal threats. And there’s no guarantee that this man with a history of manipulating the press won’t one day retake the political stage and exploit the political media’s tendency toward amnesia to do so again. Local reporters will doubtless keep an eagle eye on Cuomo. The national press is a different matter.

Below, more on Andrew Cuomo:

  • Farrow-weeds: Yesterday, shortly before Cuomo resigned, Ronan Farrow, of the New Yorker, reported that in 2014, when Bharara was investigating Cuomo, the governor called the Obama White House to complain about the scrutiny. The outreach was “highly inappropriate and potentially illegal,” a former prosecutor in Bharara’s office told Farrow. Last night, Farrow appeared on cable news to discuss his reporting. “Everyone I talked to in this story was terrified of talking about Andrew Cuomo,” he told Joy Reid, on MSNBC. “The fact that everyone went on the record ultimately I think is—certainly, I hope is—a sign of change, and something that we should all encourage, because we wouldn’t get these stories and we wouldn’t get that shot of accountability otherwise.”
  • Banned of brothers?: Earlier this year, Chris Cuomo, Andrew’s brother and an anchor on CNN, attracted scrutiny and outrage after the Washington Post reported that he advised Andrew on his response to the sexual-harassment allegations; CNN banned Chris from taking part in strategy calls with Andrew’s aides, but did not prohibit him from discussing the scandal with his brother or otherwise punish him. According to Michael M. Grynbaum, of the Times, Chris (who is on vacation from CNN) has continued to speak regularly with Andrew since the report came out last week, and advised him to resign.
  • Uneasy lies the head that goes with Crown: Last year, when Andrew Cuomo’s reputational stock was high, Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House, agreed to pay him more than five million dollars for a memoir about the pandemic, even though it wasn’t over yet. As Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris write for the Times, the gamble “backfired spectacularly”: Cuomo’s book sold poorly, and Crown stopped promoting it after Cuomo became embroiled in scandal. “It’s like a publisher’s worst nightmare,” Matt Latimer, a leading literary agent, said. “It can sometimes be very risky to work on a book that responds to what’s in the zeitgeist at the moment. But I can’t imagine any publisher would have foreseen such a catastrophic ending.”
  • No more dogs of war: When Cuomo leaves office, Kathy Hochul, New York’s lieutenant governor, will succeed him. She will become the first woman to lead the state—an achievement that was relegated to an afterthought in much of yesterday’s coverage. Hochul is expected to hold a media availability today. CNN’s Oliver Darcy asked Casey Seiler, the editor of the Albany Times Union, how he expects Hochul to handle her relations with the press. “A lot of her political style has been somewhat hidden behind Cuomo’s outsized personality,” Seiler said. But “she hires good people for her press office (and by good people I mean civil professionals, not attack dogs).”


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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.