“When I stream his presser on the governor’s website—every day around 11:30 a.m., complete with a PowerPoint presentation—I feel comforted. I feel alive. I feel protected. I feel… butterflies,” wrote Jezebel writer Rebecca Fishbein back in March 2020.
Fishbein wasn’t the only one who became infatuated. The type of fanfare typically reserved for a Jonas Brother or a Backstreet Boy was showered upon New York’s Queens-born tough-guy governor by members of the media class for many months in early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged New York City, filling up mobile morgue trucks and keeping people stuck in their apartments. While the sound of cacerolazo and applause would ring out each night at 7 p.m. thanking “essential” workers for their work, apprehensive pajama-class New Yorkers would tune into Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s midday briefings, looking for morsels of reassurance amid their growing uncertainty. Headlines both reflected their unease and regaled us with details about “How Coronavirus Made Andrew Cuomo America’s Governor,” “How Cuomo…Became the Politician of the Moment,” “Why We Are Crushing on Andrew Cuomo Right Now,” and “How Andrew Cuomo Became the Coronavirus Trump Antidote.”
From this sprung a new term: the Cuomosexual, used to describe those who were enamored not just with Cuomo’s personality and old New York accent, but also with the idea that someone within the halls of power was willing to spar with then–President Donald Trump and serve as a counterweight against the president’s worrisome COVID-19 callousness. “Forget bodyguards,” Cuomo said, making no secret of his distaste; Trump “better have an army if he thinks he’s going to walk down the street in New York,” the governor told the hordes of guffawing New Yorkers, who reveled in their guy’s reassuring dunks.
The problem was that the media class concocted a cult of personality around Cuomo, fatally blinding itself to the governor’s flaws in much the same way that Trumpists had. This gave Cuomo fertile ground to abuse his power and pursue bad policy that ultimately led to many people’s deaths.
It all started on March 25, 2020, the day then–Governor Cuomo issued a directive forcing nursing homes in the state to accept recovering COVID patients who’d been released from hospitals to make room for incoming invalids. Roughly 9,000 patients were discharged and sent to residential care facilities. Many entered without testing and proper isolation practices, which many experts believe is a huge part of what led to the virus spreading like wildfire among the state’s most vulnerable population.
On May 10, Cuomo finally reversed this directive, requiring nursing homes to only admit residents once they’d tested negative for COVID. But the damage had already been done: The Cuomo administration had hidden the deaths of almost 4,000 New Yorkers, miscounting by around 40 percent. “The state initially publicized only the number of residents who died of Covid-19 inside nursing homes, even after it became aware that thousands more residents had died after being transferred to hospitals,” reported The New York Times in January. (This was out of step with the data collection of almost every other state, for the record.)
It wasn’t just a miscount; reports surfaced that the administration had known it was concealing the proper numbers, attempting to save face after the nursing home directive had been widely scrutinized as a deadly policy. And when all this came to light, the Cuomo administration’s excuse was astonishingly weak: Officials were worried the Trump administration would investigate them, turn the matter into “a giant political football,” said top Cuomo aides.
To make matters worse, the governor did the same exact thing to residential facilities for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, issuing a directive that failed to require residential facilities to do proper testing and isolation protocol. “Losing two family members who should have lived longer lives is so hard to understand especially when we learned that there was a directive to place symptomatic individuals back in homes,” Danielle Platt Lewis told me in March of this year, saying that losing two aunts, who lived in group homes on Long Island, to COVID “was a nightmare of an experience for our family.” Another person told me he wished he’d moved his now-deceased relatives to a different state.
“There has never been any question in my mind that sending COVID-19 patients into completely unprepared, understaffed and underresourced nursing homes both increased transmission and led to a greater number of deaths,” Michael Wasserman, president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine, told the Associated Press. New York Attorney General Letitia James launched a five-month investigation into the Cuomo administration’s conduct, ultimately finding that the governor’s actions “may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities.”
Worse still, the Cuomo administration had other venues where it could’ve sent COVID-positive patients on the mend, to isolate them and reduce spread in residential facilities. The USNS Comfort, a military hospital ship, sat largely vacant, as did the Javits Center, which had been turned into additional hospital space amid the worst of the crisis.
But that’s not what ultimately got best-selling author Andrew Cuomo to resign this past August: It was the sexual harassment of 11 women, nine of whom were state employees, and the retaliation against one who came forward. After the third or fourth accuser came forward, the fawning media turned on him, and his ouster looked…suddenly possible. State legislators announced an investigation into his misconduct, and started exploring impeachment.
His summertime fall from grace was swift since there was something for everyone to hate in Cuomo. He conscripted aides into violating ethics rules by forcing them to use state time and resources to help him write his self-aggrandizing memoir. He set overly restrictive vaccine-queue rules that forced some medical providers to throw away precious doses instead of just getting as many shots in arms as possible. And who could forget that he secured special treatment for his own family members and VIPs during the early days of the pandemic when testing resources were scarce.
Now, about those family members. CNN anchor and governor’s brother Chris Cuomo was the king of softball interviews during those early pandemic days, goofing off with giant cotton swabs on the airwaves, bringing his brother on to tease him for having a big Italian schnoz, and faking his reemergence into society after a bout of COVID for dramatic effect. But when shit really hit the fan and the elder Cuomo came under fire for the twin scandals of the nursing home deaths and sexual harassment claims, Chris used his status and connections as a journalist to try to discredit accusers, which ultimately led to his firing.
Conducting opposition research meant to help fortify a favored politician’s job is simply not an appropriate role for a journalist to play. “By keeping Cuomo on the air and in his job, CNN would send the message that journalistic ethics are only for the little people and viewers are on their own,” wrote The Atlantic‘s David Graham of the firing, which happened just weeks ago. And though it made the right call in the end, CNN should’ve wised up to the conflict of interest much sooner, or done a better job of managing it from the get-go instead of trying feeble attempts at damage control 20 months in.
An aggressive and oppositional press comprised of people from different ideological traditions is a necessary check on bad politicians. But as the Cuomo saga indicates, far too many journalists fall asleep at the wheel.
As for the governor himself, it’s abundantly clear now that he should not have been heralded as a savior when he was nothing of the sort. He was always just another standard-issue corrupt, self-serving, handsy politician in a long dynastic line of them, and New Yorkers might’ve embarrassed themselves less—and made it harder for Cuomo to abuse his power—if they’d been sufficiently skeptical.
Or as one ELLE writer put it, “I Can’t Believe I Ever Called Myself ‘Cuomosexual.'”
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