New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s moment as the “hero” of the Covid-19 crisis is fading, with revelations (New York Times, 2/12/21) that his administration covered up the scope of the coronavirus death toll in the state’s nursing homes, as one Cuomo aide “admitted that the state had withheld data because it feared an investigation by the Trump Justice Department.” The anger at the governor is bipartisan; legislators on both sides of the aisle are discussing curtailing his powers, and even impeachment (City and State, 2/12/21).
It seems like yesterday when Cuomo, the son of legendary New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, was in the spotlight as the leader who rose to the occasion in cinematic fashion. Marie Claire (3/26/20) made him “America’s Boyfriend,” the powerful voice in command while then-President Donald Trump stumbled over his own narcissism. NPR (3/24/20) said his supposed qualities—“decisiveness, taking charge, listening to the experts and sticking to the facts—are playing well in a public health crisis,” while the Guardian (3/23/20) called Cuomo an “alternative guiding force” for the nation. CNN (3/22/20) praised his press briefings as offering “something simple and, to many viewers, deeply necessary: a sense that someone is in charge, even if the news is bad.” The New York Times (3/16/20) made him out as the benevolent dictator the people needed:
Mr. Cuomo has emerged as the executive best suited for the coronavirus crisis…. Even many of his critics say the very qualities that make him abrasive in ordinary interactions are serving him well now.
It doesn’t hurt when you have a brother who is a CNN host who interviews you constantly, and goes on to say you’re the best in the country (USA Today, 6/25/20).
The image of Cuomo as the leader in a time of need scored him a book deal about (as the subtitle put it) “Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic.” His press conferences even won him an Emmy Award (Guardian, 11/20/20), although now some politicians are calling for the prize to be revoked (New York Post, 2/12/21). These laurels came even as New York persistently had the second-highest per capita Covid death toll of any state, with nearly 1 in every 400 residents dying from the disease.
The fawning was extremely frustrating for many journalists following Cuomo, as they had reported deeply on his commitment to austerity, corruption and anti-labor posturing. Even as Cuomo was elevated as the “anti-Trump” in the media, some reporters were able to foresee the problems we see now. Theodore Hamm in the Indypendent (4/23/20) was, perhaps, the first journalist to spot the link between Cuomo and nursing homes, and the Wall Street Journal (5/14/20) called Cuomo’s nursing home policies a “fatal error.” David Sirota (Guardian, 5/26/20) followed up, and Ross Barkan (The Nation, 3/30/20) reported on how Cuomo’s healthcare policies had left the state in such a vulnerable position.
For journalists who have covered Cuomo’s tumultuous governorship, the recent revelations are a return from the adoring media frenzy of a year ago (documented at the time by FAIR—3/30/20) to the Cuomo they remember: a corrupt bully who perhaps embodied the Trumpian spirit as much as anyone else in power today.
For example, after Cuomo set up the Moreland Commission in 2013 to root out corruption, the New York Times (7/23/14) reported that a
three-month examination…found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.
One of Cuomo’s closest aides was taken down on federal bribery charges (New York Times, 9/20/18), and the “principle architect” of one of the governor’s biggest development projects was convicted in a “bid-rigging scheme that steered hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts to favored companies in Buffalo and Syracuse” (New York Times, 7/12/18). The Glen Falls Post-Star (7/22/18), an upstate paper, said the capital of Albany had become the “scandal capital of the country” under Cuomo.
Before the pandemic, Cuomo was notorious for keeping the press corps at arm’s length, at one point only holding press conferences over the phone, in which his aides picked which reporters got to ask questions and often planted questions themselves (Daily News, 12/7/17). The situation left the public in the dark, according to one editorial board in Schenectady (Daily Gazette, 12/11/17), which said that for six months, journalists “have not been able to ask Cuomo directly and collectively about a number of important issues,” which included “the corruption scandals, the failure of the state’s economic development programs, state taxes and other issues vital to New Yorkers.”
Contrast this with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He was cantankerous, thin-skinned and imperious, and always feisty with reporters, but even he found a way to do direct, in-person briefings nearly every day.
Then, of course, there is the governor’s long war on the public sector. Cuomo cut pension benefits for government workers, which state AFL-CIO president Mario Cilento (Reuters, 3/15/12) said was another example of how “middle-class New Yorkers will pay the price for Wall Street’s misdeeds.” As this writer noted in the Brooklyn Rail (11/12), Cuomo used the threat of layoffs to force “the state’s two biggest unions—the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and the Public Employees Federation (PEF)—to settle contracts that provide 0% wage increases in their first three years.” Cuomo was sued in 2013 over withholding $250 million in school funding, a move parents and education advocates said denied “kids a constitutional right to a sound public education” (Daily News, 2/6/13).
“I am gratified that the wide-scale recognition of Cuomo’s failure has come this soon; my fear was that it would come much later or it wouldn’t come at all,” Barkan told FAIR.
For Barkan, the press obsession with Cuomo one year ago was similar to what he saw in the press’s inability to hold Robert Moses accountable, as documented in the quintessential tome on New York politics, The Power Broker. Barkan recalled that a year ago, when Cuomo received so much “great praise…I was surprised initially, because it was so counter to that I was perceiving.” Barkan noted, “By no metric did New York handle this crisis well.”
Barkan points out that Cuomo benefited from being a perceived contrast to Trump’s incompetence, and enjoyed being in the nation’s densest media market–after all, Barkan notes, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee handled the pandemic far better (KOIN, 5/8/20), but has never received the level of national media love Cuomo has enjoyed.
Also, Cuomo’s bravado and toughness, along with his dynastic name and unrealized rumors of a place in a Democratic presidential administration, in opposition to the ineffectual nature of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, made Cuomo a figure that press could deify in a crisis. Cuomo “projects power,” Barkan said, “and journalists have a fetish for that.”