The Memo: Cuomo’s fall raises questions for media

The political fortunes of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) have dropped like a stone — and his decline is sharpening hard questions about the favorable image he enjoyed in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cuomo has been accused of sexual harassment by two former staff members, Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James (D), is overseeing an investigation into those allegations. 

In addition, Cuomo has come under significant political pressure following the revelation that his administration withheld information about the number of coronavirus deaths in nursing homes.

On Monday, one of Cuomo’s most persistent foes, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), said that if Cuomo had used his position to pressure a woman for sex, as Bennett alleges, “of course that’s someone who should no longer be in public service.”

Later Monday, The New York Times published an account from a third woman, Anna Ruch. Ruch detailed how Cuomo’s behavior toward her at a wedding reception in September 2019 — including asking her for a kiss and placing his hands on her cheeks — left her “confused and shocked and embarrassed.” 

Shortly after the latest story appeared, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) tweeted that Cuomo “must resign.”

It’s a far cry from the early part of the pandemic, when Cuomo’s daily televised briefings took on a quasi-presidential air and he won widespread approval for his actions even as his state was hammered by the virus.

Back then, some Democrats clearly saw Cuomo as a useful counterweight to then-President Trump, in part because of the latter’s blithe disregard for science. 

Cuomo’s pugnacious personality might have made him his share of enemies within his own party — but at least he wasn’t going to suggest people might inject themselves with bleach.

“We had an infection rate of about 30 percent last year and he brought it down,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. “He imposed a quarantine in New Rochelle when nobody understood what was going on, and he was vigilant in attacking the president, who was denying personal protective equipment.”

Cuomo’s nationwide profile soared to the point where there was even speculation that he could make a last-gasp run for the Democratic presidential nomination if now-President Biden and his main challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), ended up deadlocked.

Cuomo’s growing pop culture fame during this period was spurred to new heights by his series of interviews with his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. 

The two did discuss serious topics. Chris Cuomo at one point contracted the virus and was broadcasting from the basement of his home while quarantining. But their interviews were propelled on social media by their fraternal family banter above all else. 

On one occasion, when Chris Cuomo thanked his brother for appearing on his show, the governor responded, “Mom told me I had to.” The two brothers also caviled about who was their mother’s favorite, among other topics.

Those interviews drew both praise and criticism at the time. But they have taken on a much worse taint in retrospect. The rivalrous-but-loving-brothers schtick holds much less appeal after more than 45,000 coronavirus deaths in New York, and with the governor standing accused of sexual harassment.

“They look preposterous — that’s quite clear,” said Erik Wemple, media critic at The Washington Post, referring to the interviews. “It’s a major breakdown at CNN — a ‘What were we thinking?’ moment for an entire network.”

Wemple, who has himself written about those interviews, recalled, “They got so much praise for it. All the entertainment media, and people elsewhere were saying, ‘This is what we need right now.’ And it was not what we needed in any way.”

CNN has in the past defended the interviews, to Wemple and others, as a worthwhile human interest story that merited bending the usual rules that would typically bar a journalist from covering a family member. 

Some voices outside the network feel a degree of sympathy but argue that CNN crossed the sometimes-hazy line that ought to separate news from entertainment.

“What I remember from those interviews are the cutesy parts, not anything substantial,” said one staffer at a rival cable network. “Some people have a problem with that. I don’t, particularly — but let’s call it what it is.”

At the beginning of his show on Monday evening, Chris Cuomo addressed the current controversy.

“Obviously I am aware of what is going on with my brother. And obviously I cannot cover it because he is my brother,” the younger Cuomo said on air. “Now, of course CNN has to cover it. They have covered it extensively and they will continue to do so.” 

But that explanation seemed problematic, too. CNN had savored the on-air jousting between the brothers when Andrew Cuomo’s political fortunes were cresting. Now, as they plummet, the network has conveniently rediscovered a commitment to impartiality.

The broader discussion about Cuomo is impossible to separate from political partisanship. Just as Democrats enjoyed his role as an oppositional figure to Trump at his height, so Republicans are now experiencing schadenfreude about his fall.

Even though the sexual harassment allegations have only come to light recently, conservatives argue that the media should have been much more rigorous in examining Cuomo’s coronavirus record, as well as stories of his aggressive behavior with other lawmakers.

“The scandals surrounding Cuomo, whether it is the nursing homes or his treatment of other elected officials, were no secret — and yet the media deified him over the course of the past year,” said Matt Gorman, a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “He courted the media and they, in large part, were totally blinded by it.”

As ever, discussing “the media” as though they are monolithic is dangerous. The New York Times has been crucial in bringing the allegations about Cuomo’s behavior toward women to light.

Cuomo’s fate is perilous. He will be loathe to resign, but the pressure to do so may become irresistible. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden’s view was that “every woman coming forward should be treated with dignity and respect.” Psaki went on to refer to Cuomo’s accusers by their first names.

Cuomo, in a Sunday statement, said that he understood “that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended.”

He added: “I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”

But that has not been enough to quench the storm.

“It’s going to prove to be a near-death experience” for Cuomo in political terms, said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York.

The calls for Cuomo’s resignation or, at a minimum, him ruling out seeking a fourth term in 2022 are growing louder.

“If you are governor for three term, you make a lot of enemies,” said Muzzio. “He has made a lot of enemies.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Andrew Cuomo Bernie Sanders Bill de Blasio Chris Cuomo Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden Kathleen Rice New York New York City NY nursing homes Sexual harassment
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