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Andrew Cuomo Is Done With His Daily Press Briefings. The Media Still Wants to Celebrate His Tragic Failure.
Right now, Cuomo is winning.
Hi everyone! Before reading today’s newsletter, please check out my new essay in the Guardian about the future of New York City. I’ll have expanded thoughts on this topic in the Cuomo Files in the coming days.
For more than 100 consecutive days, Governor Andrew Cuomo held a daily televised press briefing to share information and propagate his worldview about the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging his state. The press conferences, as we all know, were widely popular, with prestige pundits and ordinary people lavishing praise on Cuomo’s demeanor and messaging, contrasting the governor’s approach with the shambolic and sputtering attempts from President Donald Trump and Mayor Bill de Blasio. During the darkest moments of the crisis, Cuomo’s approval ratings skyrocketed and he graced the covers of national magazines.
Now the daily briefings are done. “Heartbroken ‘Cuomosexuals’ Lament Loss of Daily Coronavirus Briefings” read a June 19 Daily News headline. On New York Magazine’s website, a rundown was given of the major and minor players at the briefings, spotlighting Cuomo’s press team and the Albany journalists who daily questioned him. Not to be outdone, NY1—whose parent company, Charter Spectrum, was nearly booted from New York—pulled together a light-hearted, laudatory montage of the briefings. “He always told it like it is,” said NY1’s Jamie Stelter. “And always with a goal in mind.”
None of this should be surprising. Since the coronavirus pandemic began infecting and killing thousands of New Yorkers in March, Cuomo has built a national following off his press conferences. Some people talked openly about wanting to date him. Others floated him as a Joe Biden replacement, as implausible an idea as it was. The argument for Cuomo’s success at taming the pandemic rests, in part, on his ability to communicate to and calm the public. Often, I am told that my own criticisms of Cuomo must be filtered through this lens. Yes, mistakes were made, but you can’t argue that he hasn’t been an important leadership figure, communicating the challenges bluntly and reassuring a terrified populace.
Those who are readers of my journalism, commentary, and this newsletter know my position. I’ll sum it up here: Cuomo, de Blasio, and Trump all catastrophically failed to contain the coronavirus. The federal government provided poor guidance and failed to ramp up testing and coordinate with states on any kind of national strategy. De Blasio repeatedly downplayed the threat of COVID-19, telling people to go to their favorite bars and restaurants and take in a movie while the virus was spreading unchecked. On March 16, as he was warning New Yorkers away from gyms, he went to the gym himself, an error of optics that will probably rate a mention in his obituary. He dithered on closing city public schools and canceling parades. His leadership was poor and rightfully judged harshly.
Cuomo’s sins are just as great, if not greater. On March 17, de Blasio—chastened enough by his horrid month of decision-making—suggested residents of New York City should prepare shelter in place, akin to the order given in San Francisco. Cuomo rejected the idea altogether because de Blasio had offered it, only to implement it on March 22 under a new name, “PAUSE.” This pointless delay, as has been detailed elsewhere, likely cost thousands of lives. Though Cuomo was praised for his quick action, he in fact dragged his feet on closing schools statewide—the governors of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, just to name a few, did it first—and implementing shelter in place.
A shelter in place or shutdown order closes most businesses and only allows essential workers to leave their homes for any length of time. COVID-19 is a highly contagious and mysterious virus; the only way to successfully combat it without a vaccine is to social distance. The earlier a locality is shut down, the more likely people are to live. To this day, thanks to the fast actions taken by Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, and London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, only 47 people have died from COVID-19 in San Francisco. More people, meanwhile, perished from coronavirus in one New York City nursing home. Cuomo’s decision in March to order nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients likely led to more than 6,000 deaths across the state. In May, without admitting error, Cuomo reversed the policy. At the same time, he has granted nursing homes immunity from lawsuits.
Though New York has made great strides since the dark days of March and April, the death toll is inarguably horrendous. Factoring in probable cases, since not all people were adequately tested, more than 31,000 people have died statewide. To put this in perspective, just over 34,000 have died in Italy, among the hardest hit nations worldwide. More people died in New York than in all of Spain. To date, about 122,000 people have died in the United States from coronavirus, which still means New York represents around 25 percent of America’s death toll. New York, due to its density and international nature, was always going to be vulnerable to an outbreak. But far denser cities across the world, like Seoul, have experienced relatively few deaths. Had New York implemented a shutdown order days sooner and Cuomo communicated to the public, in early March, that coronavirus was a serious threat, many lives could have been saved. The death toll did not have to be this outrageous. None of this was inevitable.
Certain media outlets and reporters, however, have strained to find ways to take the onus off Cuomo or obsess over the optics of his press conferences. I have come to believe the word “optics,” which is bandied about often in politics, is one of the more dangerous words to enter the media lexicon and remains a shaper of news in destructive ways. Optics explains all the laudatory Cuomo coverage I linked to above. It is appearance divorced from fact. It is appearance placed above fact.
This is not a new problem. As Neil Postman warned more than 30 years ago, the TV age ushered in a blend of news and entertainment that prized the image above the written word. The staggering death toll from COVID-19 means little in this context if Andrew Cuomo is joking about the PowerPoint slide announcing it’s Saturday, his Sunday meatball dinners, or the men dating his daughters. The deaths do not matter if Cuomo appears commanding enough. It matters even less whether a deed was done or not; Cuomo may have been more indecisive than Jay Inslee or Gavin Newsom, but he didn’t seem that way, and leading media outlets were content to burnish a narrative that didn’t need hard facts to thrive. It is akin to the general of a slaughtered army winning plaudits for the crispness of his frock coat.
The approach grows more absurd when placed in any kind of historical context. Would we accept praise of George W. Bush for his handling of Katrina if he had PowerPoint press conferences that were witty enough? Would Vichy France be well-judged by pundits for having a competent press team? At his penultimate press conference, Cuomo singled out the media for praise, telling them their reporting would be taught in journalism schools of the future. It’s true there’s been some serious standout reporting during the coronavirus crisis. I’ve used this reporting to inform my own coverage. But the beat reporters who cover Cuomo and those who have written about him in flattering terms should consider whether it’s a good thing that a powerful executive is praising their work. Robert Moses didn’t thank Robert Caro for The Power Broker. In fact, Moses railed against the book until the end of his life. Cuomo wouldn’t have been in such a gracious mood toward the press if the narrative of coronavirus in New York hadn’t ultimately been shaped to his liking.
It would take decades for Moses’ reputation to be undone. At the height of his power, he was a more lauded figure than even Cuomo, regarded in an almost mythic way for how he dreamed up the highways, bridges, parks, and public housing of New York. The New York media worshipped him. Cuomo is still in the midst of his Moses phase, despite his falling poll numbers and the increased scrutiny on nursing home deaths. I ultimately cannot say how history will judge him. I hope, over time, a more accurate assessment will come into view. But it’s possible, tragically, Cuomo has won already. Enough people in positions of influence and power believe, like Jamie Stelter said, he always told it like it is.