The Decline of Cuomo, the TV Personality
Brooke Gladstone: During the pandemic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo transformed into a fully-fledged TV star.
Andrew Cuomo: Let's remember some basic context and facts; society functions, everything works. There's going to be food in the grocery stores. There's no reason to buy 100 rolls of toilet paper. There really isn't. By the way, where do you even put 100 rolls of toilet paper?
Brooke: He was propelled into the firmament by his daily coronavirus briefings that reassured an anxious, leaderless public.
Caller 1: I just want to say on behalf of me, my family, New Yorkers, bigger than that, the world, thank you for your leadership because, man, right out of the gate, you were there for us.
Ellen DeGeneres: Trevor, you call yourself a Cuomosexual and I agree with you. I feel like I'm Cuomosexual too.
Trevor Noah: It genuinely has been very inspiring and refreshing to see a leader like Cuomo.
Brooke: New fans declared their adoration in TikTok videos, memes, and songs.
Stranded in my bedroom.
No one to love.
Then there he is.
Andrew: Let's give you an update as to where we are today.
My favorite guy.
Brooke: The chummy treatment of the governor, of course, extended to many news networks like CNN, where his brother asked the tough questions.
Chris Cuomo: Now, I've seen you're referred to a little bit recently as the Love Gov. I'm wondering if that's bleeding into your demeanor at all, making you a little soft on the president, Love Gov.
Andrew: I've always been a soft guy. I am the Love Gov. I'm a cool dude in a loose mood, you know that.
Brooke: In the past few weeks, Cuomo's TV persona as the deeply principled, self-aware, fatherly, truth-teller has faltered. A report from the State Attorney General and the court order found that the official count of deaths of nursing home residents due to the virus was nearly double the figure first reported by the Cuomo administration. Plus, as I write this, three women have accused the governor of sexual harassment, some in awkward, icky detail, including two former aides. Alex Pareene, staff writer at The New Republic, recently wrote the article, The Andrew Cuomo Show Has Lost the Plot. Welcome back to the show.
Alex Pareene: Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.
Brooke: Now, as Cuomo's star takes a nosedive, the Cuomosexuals appear to have fallen silent. Although Chris Cuomo gladly interviewed his older brother while he was haloed by those pandemic briefings, now the CNN host says he's putting some distance between himself and his siblings. He says it's the ethical thing to do, or maybe it's just the better part of valor.
Chris: Obviously, I'm aware of what's going on with my brother, and obviously, I cannot cover it because he is my brother. Now, of course, CNN has to cover it. They have covered it extensively, and they will continue to do so.
Alex: It's a funny statement of journalistic ethics that you can only interview your own brother when it's a puff piece like, "Only when he's not in trouble can I interview my brother," and call it journalism on cable news.
Brooke: You note, and this is why we called you, to people who have closely read about the governor in the newspapers over the years as opposed to TV, this version of Cuomo, this bully and cynical operator isn't new. How have the media or the two kinds of media, in this case, changed the message?
Alex: Well, like you say, I wrote that if you were a long-time consumer of mainly print news about state politics, you had an entire chronology of Cuomo scandals at your fingertips, even if you forgot some of the details that didn't necessarily always get a lot of play on TV News. I'm not even just talking about someone who checks the New York Times' front page regularly.
Keeping up with Cuomo news over the last decade has also required being familiar with reporters from the Albany Times Union or newspapers in Rochester, these places where the Albany Bureau is still really important and a big part of their beat. A lot of that news, while it does make it to the broader mainstream national news, the complexity of it and specifically the way it fit a pattern of behavior with Cuomo was usually too difficult to get across and especially in a short television segment.
It should be plainly scandalous when one of his top aides, Joe Percoco, is convicted of corruption. If you aren't already familiar with how close Percoco was to Cuomo, for how many years, and what his political role was in the administration, these are all things that you learn from thousand-word newspaper articles that are of interest only if you are extremely interested in state politics, which I think most normal people for normal reasons are not.
Brooke: I know a lot about this because I actually listened to the local radio station that I'm aired on and that produces this show. That's how I know about the Moreland Commission. You said this story never made it to prime time because it's too complicated.
Alex: Absolutely, yes. The Moreland Commission was in a way Cuomo's first scandal. All of the past few governors had gotten in trouble and it just seemed like, "This place needs to be cleaned up." Cuomo was running as the guy who's going to come to clean it up, and so what he does when he's elected in his first term is, he sets up a commission. They called it Moreland Commission. He says they have the authority to investigate corruption and all of its forms here in Albany and they will be independent. "I will not meddle. I will not interfere. They have the remit to go after anyone, and I will not interfere with them."
He shuts them down less than a year later because they start going after people too connected to him, essentially. Moreland commissioners, people who worked on the commission, they went to the New York Times, and they said Cuomo was meddling. They said, "He wouldn't let us do our job. He stopped us when we were getting too close to his allies." That stuff was out there, and it's been out there for years and years. When the story made it to TV news, it was again not stripped of the scandal but stripped of the level of detail necessary to understand what had happened and why.
Brooke: Even during his heyday, Cuomo wasn't pushed a whole lot for his elsewhere well-reported delay in March going into the lockdown, right?
Brooke: It would seem to me that would be crucial. You observed that TV was soft on the governor even when it came to his prior scandals like in this interview with Charlie Rose months after it came out that Cuomo's office had hobbled the aforementioned Moreland Commission.
Reporter 1: Governor Andrew Cuomo is reestablishing a family dynasty in New York politics though he's had to get used to criticism of his leadership style.
Andrew: Well, you micromanage.
Charlie Rose: Yes, they say that too.
Andrew: You should delegate more.
Charlie: "You're not transparent," they say.
Andrew: I know.
Charlie: They say you don't [unintelligible 00:07:42] fools.
Andrew: You push too hard, you micromanage.
Charlie: All of that, do you plead guilty or not guilty?
Andrew: You can't have one without the other. I plead guilty.
Alex: That's such a great example of what some people on television consider pressing a politician. Not only was Rose asking an easily dodged question, he was almost ventriloquizing the answers for Andrew Cuomo. It's like the old job interview joke, "What's your biggest flaw?" "I'm too hard on myself."
Brooke: You take issue with the defenders of Cuomo who say that his most important audience, New Yorkers, always have known about the governor's tough persona, that bullying quality, that sharp operator with the even sharper elbows and all of that, and they like it.
Alex: There's this idea that, look, he has cruised to re-election twice with a huge amount of support from Democratic voters in New York State. At some point, the governor is a known quantity, they must know who this guy is and support him. That's why I draw that distinction between Cuomo the TV character and this new-favorite Cuomo because if we have listened to a few clips of him on television, he's not berating anyone. He's joking around with his brother. He's performing empathy for victims of COVID-19 or Hurricane Sandy.
Brooke: He's daddy, complete with the daddy jokes.
Alex: Exactly. He's New York's dad.
Brooke: Obviously, his history of harassment is documented when it comes to his political critics, and especially the press.
Alex: We have these really, really striking reports of him directly harassing people himself with threats and abuse. There's also even more documented history of his top aides doing it on his behalf. State Senator Liz Krueger just revealed recently that Joe Percoco, the Cuomo aide who went to jail for corruption, once told her that he maintained a do-not-yell-at list that she was on just because she was too important to his agenda in Albany.
Brooke: It seems that Cuomo has been able to keep his TV persona and his newspapers persona separate. Why are they colliding now?
Alex: For a few reasons. One important one is that people do not want to go on the record attacking Andrew Cuomo because of the power he holds in this state, especially elected Democrats.
Brooke: His willingness to use it.
Alex: Yes, exactly. Some people might remember when Bill de Blasio invited some journalists into his office, the mayor of New York City, and openly called Cuomo vindictive. That happened once, and then their war returned to being a cold war that played out with their aides tweeting veiled things, and unnamed officials speaking off the record in the paper.
What happened this time is that Ron Kim, an assembly member received a bullying call from Andrew Cuomo for speaking to the New York Post about the nursing home situation. Kim had been at a briefing where a top Cuomo aide said, "This looks bad that we reported the wrong number of people who had died in nursing homes. It looks bad, but you have to understand we didn't want it to become a story, basically." They were like, "Trump's DOJ is going to make a thing of it. Trump is going to make a thing of it. That's why we covered it up."
Anyway, Ron Kim went to the Post and gave an on-the-record quote to the Post about that meeting. That was the subject of the call where Cuomo allegedly said, according to Kim, "I'll destroy you," where Cuomo was yelling and threatening to destroy him. In normal Albany affairs, what happens next is either Kim shuts up, Kim goes on background to the New York Post again.
Brooke: Let's explain why Kim might shut up because Cuomo, as in other cases, finds an irregularity in Kim's background and implies that that could be used against him. Kim certainly saw what Cuomo was telling him as a threat.
Alex: Absolutely. What he would end up doing is, at a press conference, he would bring up a years-old story about how Kim had flip-flopped on this bill about nail salons. He would heavily, not just heavily imply he would outright say Kim was crooked. This is the Cuomo thread here basically, "I will destroy you." Often it means, "My aides will go to the press with damaging information about you." He apparently thinks he can get that story out there that Kim, a few years ago, flip-flopped on a bill about regulating nail salons.
Brooke: You mentioned that Ron Kim called up the Post, not the New York Times, for instance, and he even went on The View.
Host: Tell us what happened after he called you or when he called you.
Ron Kim: It was last Thursday night, I was about to bathe my three kids when I received the call from the governor. He spent 10 minutes threatening my career and ordering me to issue a statement that will be used to cover for the state secretary. The day before that conference--
Alex: Right after Cuomo does that press conference, there's a story on CNN about how Cuomo had made this phone call to Kim the day before. That's not the kind of thing that legislators in Albany usually do when they get implicitly or explicitly threatened by Cuomo. They don't call CNN and go on the record and say, "The governor threatened me."
I think that Cuomo got away with it for so long because no one wanted to put their name to descriptions of his behavior, but Kim, he knows, "I have a story now. I have a compelling narrative in which I'm the hero and the governor's the villain." What does TV like? TV likes stories like that.
He ends up on The View, which is not a show that traditionally covers Albany New York state politics. I don't think they've done very many segments on ethics in New York state government prior to this.
Brooke: You wrote, "If a politician acts as if he believes his voters experience politics as a television show, the best way to harm him is to make yourself a compelling character." That's what the women who alleged the governor's sexual harassment are doing, and it's very compelling, but still, they expose themselves to risk.
Alex: Absolutely. To my mind, that's why Andrew Cuomo doesn't seem like he knows how to navigate out of this stretch of bad press the way he has bad press in the past is because people are putting their names to it, going on the record.
Brooke: These women do have some witnesses and some documentation, even a photograph, and Cuomo himself seems to have confirmed at least some of this. They have pretty good cases even to those who are not inclined to believe them.
Alex: I think that even if you're skeptical of some of the specific claims, any of them made, they clearly have produced documentation that shows at least that he acted in ways that were inappropriate and that made them uncomfortable. As you say, Cuomo has essentially admitted to that too.
What I found interesting was that he attempted to call for an independent investigation that would also perhaps be half-run by a political ally of his, a judge. He first tried to get the attorney general of New York to work with a judge he appointed to investigate this while calling it an independent investigation. I found that interesting because that sounds a lot like-
Brooke: The newspaper Cuomo. [laughs]
Alex: Yes, exactly. That sounds like a thing he would get away with in the past, "The Moreland Commission is independent until I shut it down. This investigation will be independent, and a political ally of mine will have veto power over whatever the result of it is." It seemed like he couldn't get away with it this time and he actually backed off. He referred it to the attorney general's office without that request. I think we are absolutely in uncharted territory for Andrew Cuomo right now.
Brooke: What are the consequences, do you think of fans of Andrew Cuomo, the TV character being introduced to Andrew Cuomo, the newspaper character?
Alex: Personally, I do not like politics as fandom. I think television encourages it sometimes. I think that because politics is treated as fandom, there's going to be denial and there's going to be anger at the people who brought down Andrew Cuomo. Michelle Goldberg wrote in the Times about a tendency where people think, "It's just not fair that Democrats are always held to these standards and Republicans aren't." I personally would rather be on the side that has high standards.
Brooke: The ghost of Al Franken looms over this as well.
Alex: Exactly. I'm not so detached in wives. There are definitely politicians that I feel that affection for. I think it's a lot easier to get detached when you read the news very closely rather than get it from cable news.
Brooke: Is that the lesson of presenting these dueling characters of Andrew Cuomo in this way that really should avoid TV news?
Alex: The best way to learn about politics is not to watch cable news all day. I really think that. You get a distorted view of what's happening. I do wish, and I have thought this for years and I actually think things are improving, but I think there are a lot of people who consider themselves well-educated, high information voters who follow the news, who aren't paying attention to what's going on in City Hall or aren't paying attention to what's going on at their statements.
I like to write about local politics and state politics. I try to make it interesting, but I do think people have a responsibility. If they want to be considered an engaged citizen, they have a responsibility to know what's going on, not just at the national level, but at City Hall and the State Capitol.
Brooke: Which is an important distinction. It isn't just about where you get your national news, it's the fact that you aren't getting your local news at all if you don't make an effort. It's the local news outlets that are really suffering. I am curious, you are advising audiences to move away from TV news, which is something that I've done myself, but shouldn't we be leveling some of our opprobrium at the medium itself for being so reductive? Or do you think it's simply inevitable that they will get behind a narrative model? The idea really is that it never resolves, that it stays on like an electronic fireplace and so the story doesn't end.
Alex: That's a big question. I don't know if I have the answer. It's definitely possible for any audiovisual form to tell a complicated story and explain things well, but the format that we crafted over many years called TV news, it doesn't seem well suited to me, especially the 24-hour cable news version. The 24-hour cable news model is, "We need to fill a lot of time and not go broke doing it. Let's just get people in a studio talking."
That's not investigation and that's also not the careful reporting and then crafting of narrative journalism that you would get out of a documentary. It's not even the amount of work that goes into, for one example, the John Oliver's show every week, which usually just tries to tell one complicated story well. That kind of thing is possible in television, but it's not compatible, I don't think, with the 24-hour cable news model.
Brooke: If you go there, then you're going there to be warmed in the glow of having your perspective being affirmed or you hate-watch at a station that you don't like. [chuckles]
Alex: You're either being riled up to get mad about something or you're checking in with your good pals. That's what cable news has become.
Brooke: When did it strike you that there were these two dueling Andrew Cuomos in two different media?
Alex: I had been watching the governor and the mayor of New York City have this fight in March about whether or not to shut down. Mayor de Blasio was late to the conclusion that New York had to shut the schools and the restaurants and go into lockdown. He was late to it, but he got there before Cuomo and Cuomo attempted to undermine him when de Blasio made that decision. Again, that was typical Andrew Cuomo. This is how he works.
The nursing home thing was reported, not the fudging of numbers, but the fact they were sending infected people back to nursing homes was reported in March as well. He reversed that policy in May. I was watching him respond to this pandemic with his usual management style and I thought it was failing New Yorkers. I didn't think it was going well. It was terrible here over the spring and summer.
I watched him then just become a beloved TV celebrity. I watched him become a meme. I watched people fall all over themselves talking about how great he was. It's most absurd, not just when he wrote a book about management, but when he commissioned an artist to create a 3-dimensional mountain representing coronavirus cases in New York City. He made a monument to his mismanagement and acted like it was a success, like we'd all gotten over this mountain together. COVID-19, very few places have successfully stopped it. It's tricky. It's an incredibly difficult governing challenge, but no one should be taking victory laps over it unless you are literally the government of New Zealand or Vietnam.
Brooke: Alex, thank you so much.
Alex: [chuckles] Thank you, Brooke.
Brooke: Alex Pareene, staff writer at The New Republic and host of the podcast, The Politics of Everything, recently wrote the article, The Andrew Cuomo Show Has Lost the Plot.
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