News media stoke Gov. Cuomo narrative as counter to Trump

The COVID-19 crisis has — even more than usual — made President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE the focus of the nation’s news agenda. Under “normal” crisis circumstances, that makes sense. After all, Trump is the president. But there are no normal circumstances in the era of Trump. Thus — unlike FDR during the depression and subsequent WWII, JFK during the Cuban missile crisis, and even George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 — some in the media regularly craft a narrative that provides a daily counterbalance to the president’s efforts to manage through the crisis.

Trump has prompted the urge for a counter-balancing narrative to some extent by his overdone, combative, self-focused and sometimes poorly strategized daily press briefings.

But make no mistake, it is Trump’s anti-media stance that sparks many in the press to forge a competing and oppositional narrative. This likely would be happening — at least for some — even had Trump been managing the COVID-19 crisis flawlessly.

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Enter New York’s Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoTrump calls New York City 'hellhole' after court upholds subpoena from city prosecutors Fauci: Partisanship in US has made it harder to suppress coronavirus New Jersey to require masks outdoors MORE, the appointed darling to step into the ring and serve as pugilist against Trump in this crisis. After all, Cuomo is a Democrat and the governor of a large state that has been hit hard by the pandemic. But that’s not why he has been anointed to serve the narrative. He pretty much got his role by default.

Those in the media looking for a foil for Trump could hardly have used Democrat presumptive presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' Trump says he'll wear mask during upcoming trip to Walter Reed Latino group 'Mi Familia Vota' launches M voter turnout campaign targeting swing states MORE. Disjointed and untimely pronouncements from a basement in Delaware hardly make for television drama. House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSupreme Court rulings reignite Trump oversight wars in Congress Pelosi on Baltimore's Columbus statue: 'If the community doesn't want the statue, the statue shouldn't be there' Pelosi says House won't cave to Senate on worker COVID-19 protections MORE (D-Calif.) effectively eliminated herself with partisan tactics over spending relief packages, then retreating to California and showing off to a late night comedian her freezer full of $12 per pint ice cream. New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioTrump calls New York City 'hellhole' after court upholds subpoena from city prosecutors NYPD retirements surge over 400 percent amid tensions with mayor NYC to start painting Black Lives Matter mural in front of Trump Tower Thursday despite pushback from Trump MORE could have made sense as the symbol of opposition to Trump’s crisis management — he is the mayor of the city hardest hit by the virus — but his lack of focus and clarity disqualified him. The Democratic governor of New Jersey, another hard-hit state, is a national unknown.

So, Cuomo is it.

Turns out he is pretty well suited to the role. He exhibits “straight out of central casting” traits. He’s an alpha male New Yorker who can match Trump for bluster and aggressiveness. He is eager to be in the limelight and has plenty of self-confidence. He responds to every slight or criticism. In many ways, he is like Trump — only in the dramatic oppositional narrative, Cuomo wears the white hat to counter the villainous Trump.

Cuomo and his image handlers have brilliantly managed the governor’s role as the worthy opponent. His afternoon press briefings allow him to set the day’s news agenda before Trump takes his turn later in the day. In a sense, Cuomo wins the coin toss for every game and takes the ball. His perspective on the COVID-19 fight sets the media up to question/challenge Trump at the later White House briefings.

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Cuomo pushes the proper emotional buttons, saying no grandmother is expendable. He pays official respect to science in his pronouncements, a path the press loves but to which Trump is less committed. The governor’s press briefings are stage-managed with slick graphs and charts.

Governors of other hard-hit COVID-19 states might as well be potted plants. They get scant coverage — particularly since they lack the side narratives and sub-plots that have emerged for Cuomo, that go beyond his COVID-19 management and that fuel cable pundit chatter. He has sparked notions of being a draftee for his party’s presidential nomination, and there are already rumblings about 2024.

A recent Cuomo presser provided just the kind of theatrics talk-media crave. As if on cue, Trump tweeted during the briefing a criticism that Cuomo complains too much about lack of federal assistance. The governor then fielded a reporter’s question about the tweet, to which he responded by chiding Trump to stop watching television and get back to work.

Great television.

Great tension.

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Great for clicks on media sites.

Not so great for solving a pandemic.

The nation’s battle with COVID-19 has a long way to go. Trump and Cuomo will be key figures in the management of the ongoing struggle. Given that nobody has a magic wand for solving the virus challenges, it figures there will be ongoing disagreements between such powerful and determined personalities.

But the nation doesn’t need more drama: It needs measured and insightful information and analysis.

A seemingly forced daily narrative of Trump and Cuomo doing combat unhelpfully raises the nation’s temperature. The press should do more reporting and less crafting of theatrics. After all, handling the nation’s emotions, like battling COVID-19, should be about reducing fever.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.