Andrew Cuomo and Media Hero-Making | Alex Reinsch-Goldstein
The mass media has a gift for bringing about a certain kind of public relations apotheosis. They seize on a person, often with a mixed or downright negative record, and fawn over them with such a massive excess of positive news coverage that the person becomes a heroic figure — obscuring their real failings and often placing them beyond reproach. There are a number of reasons for this; partisan interests is one of them, where the media aligned with one political faction wants to elevate one of its partisan allies to ensure that the public views their side favorably. Another is simple ratings-chasing; spinning stories about a battle between a moral messiah and the forces of evil is a good way to keep people tuning in. It’s not enough to simply say their point of view is the correct one — they must give people charismatic leaders, figures who function as votive objects onto which all kinds of partisan anger and fervor are offloaded. Media-generated heroes become stand-ins for people’s own desires and beliefs, proxies which we root for or against — almost like characters in some sort of awful TV show.
This desire for hero-making was evident in a particularly loathsome way during the years-long battle between Donald Trump and America’s intelligence services, when a succession of bland intelligence goons — James Comey, Robert Mueller, Peter Strzok, etc. — were transformed into martyrs. Nevermind that the organizations they presided over are some of the most pathologically evil that exist anywhere in the world — the FBI has long waged a campaign against domestic political dissent going back to the infamous COINTELPRO era of the 1970s, and the CIA has an extensive record of overthrowing democratically-elected foreign governments and torturing prisoners during the so-called War on Terror. The evil deeds of America’s intelligence agencies, and the deep amorality of the hacks running them, were all thrown out the window to feed the sort of simplistic good-and-evil narrative that the media thrives on. Correctly assessing that Trump was bad (though often making it clear that they thought Trump’s offenses against civility were worse than his crimes against humanity), the media looked for people and groups to serve as antagonists to him. However, since the media is corporate-owned and therefore unlikely to express admiration for anyone too far outside of the country’s established power structure, they often chose the most repulsive people to cast as heroes. The CIA and FBI were valorized into deeply righteous organizations, “defenders of our democracy” as the common praise went. Ask a Guatemalan or a Chilean who suffered under the yolk of a US-backed dictatorship and they would tell you exactly what they think of the CIA being a “defender of democracy.” But none of this mattered particularly; the media just kept repeating the same hyperbolic praise until they became universally accepted, and legions of anxious liberals suddenly revere the national security state.
A similar sort of thing transpired with the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans who tried to pose as principled and conscientious citizens standing up for democracy. Media coverage on CNN, MSNBC, and the like, was universally positive — on Election Night, MSNBC’s Brian Williams even credited the Lincoln Project’s anti-Trump ads with swinging the election. This was total nonsense, of course, on account of the fact that the group’s goal of getting Republicans to not vote for Trump failed miserably: Trump actually got a higher percentage of the vote among Republicans in 2020 than he did in 2016. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that many of the people involved in the project were rather unsavory. Rick Wilson, one of the project’s leaders, posted pictures on social media of him with a cooler emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag; he also said that he too would’ve killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, had he been in the same position as the wannabe-cop who cut short the life of a 17-year old boy in an act of inhuman cruelty. Wilson also made a laundry list of rabidly Islamophobic statements. Steve Schmitt, another Lincoln Project leader, served as John McCain’s campaign manager in 2008 and helped launch the career of Sarah Palin, who’s brand of ultra-right pseudo-populism laid the groundwork for the Tea Party and eventually Donald Trump himself. And if that wasn’t enough, one of the project’s founders is a predator who sexually harassed young men on a regular basis. The Lincoln Project is a fairly transparent grift which didn’t even achieve what it set out to do and is run by tremendously loathsome people, but that doesn’t stop the media from valorizing them and drastically overstating their importance.
Developing heroes — individuals that people can easily focus their feelings about the world onto — is good for partisan goals and good for ratings. Hate Trump? Well, you can channel all your outrage at his regime into support for James Comey, who is fighting him. Anxious about the Coronavirus and angry about how the federal government is handling it? Well, we have a gruff Italian-American guy who’s exactly the sort of person you can fixate on!
This brings me, in a fairly roundabout way, to the story of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. More than all the others — more than the intelligence services, more than the Lincoln Project, more than all the other goons and grifters who are transformed into gods by the magic news wand — Andrew Cuomo has benefitted from our media’s pervasive desire for hero-making. The governor of a state that was both the epicenter of America’s early COVID epidemic and the main headquarters of America’s news media, he’s been almost a non-stop presence on our TVs through these past months — his incessant press briefings and interviews are usually accompanied by hyperbolic praise from pundits and talking heads. The Cult of Cuomo has grown spectacularly since the pandemic began, and will probably continue to expand like some sort of balloon filled with hot air. If things keep going as they are, he might become president someday — a prospect that should make all of us very, very worried.
Cuomo’s lionization by the news media often goes beyond just being overly enthusiastic and verges into the realm of the bizarre and the cringeworthy. Cuomo routinely joins his brother Chris on the latter’s CNN show, where they engage in painfully synthetic sibling banter and where Chris Cuomo does everything he can to further inflate his brother’s gigantic ego — at one point even asking his brother “You’re feeling pretty good about yourself these days, aren’t you?” Cuomo received an Emmy award for the daily press briefings he gave on the state of the coronavirus outbreak in his state. He likewise received a six-figure book deal, producing a tome called American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic, which was almost certainly ghostwritten (if it wasn’t written by someone else, that would actually be even worse — imagine if he genuinely took the time out of his duties as governor to write a full-length book about himself). Rolling Stone said that Cuomo’s response to the pandemic has “helped guide the nation.” An entire subculture of weird online liberals developed, whose interest in the governor appeared to be more than political — Vogue ran an article titled “Why We Are Crushing on Andrew Cuomo Right Now,” and Jezebel took a similar line with an article called “Help? I Think I’m in Love With Andrew Cuomo!!!” These self-described “Cuomosexuals” revere the exceedingly plain governor as some sort of Adonis god of beauty.
This is all utterly insane if one looks at the facts of what Cuomo has actually done as governor of New York. In fact, exonerating the governor from guilt for the disaster that befell his state requires some pretty extensive cognitive dissonance. Everyone grasps, correctly, that the pandemic being so catastrophically terrible in the US wasn’t ordained by some law of nature; it was caused by human decisions and mismanagement, made by President Trump and the extraordinarily useless band of dupes and morons that surrounded him. But likewise there was no law of nature saying that New York had to have the worst coronavirus outbreak in the United States — that too was the result of human choices, if we apply the same standard that everyone does to the federal response. But somehow Cuomo gets let off the hook, and the fact that the pandemic hit his state so hard is somehow treated as inevitable or beyond his ability to do anything about.
Cuomo mismanaged the pandemic at just about every step. He lagged on implementing a stay-at-home order and closing schools, bickering with his rival, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, about who had the authority to do what rather than taking decisive action. New York ended up implementing a stay-at-home order almost a week after California did, despite having many more cases. Things only got worse from there, with elderly patients in nursing homes often taking the brunt of Cuomo’s bungling. Cuomo implemented a policy of allowing Coronavirus-infected patients into nursing homes, and stating that staff could not prevent people who tested positive from entering their care facilities on the basis of their being infected. This led to over 4,000 Coronavirus-infected individuals entering nursing homes full of vulnerable people, causing more than 13,000 nursing home residents to die of COVID. New York’s nursing homes alone had a higher death count than the great majority of the states in the US. Cuomo, who received large amounts of campaign donations from companies that run nursing homes, then made matters even worse by pushing a bill to give nursing homes liability waivers for Coronavirus deaths; basically meaning that a nursing home could not be sued for any of their practices that might have led to people getting sick and dying. This meant that there would never be any consequences if nursing homes permitted unsafe conditions and let people die — which, of course, many of them did — and so there was no incentive for homes to take precautions (under our current system, protecting people’s lives never seems to be enough of an incentive for a money-grubbing goons who run things). It’s worth noting that the policy of immunity was quickly copied by Republicans at the federal level, who have tried to insert it into every Coronavirus relief bill that has come before Congress. Cuomo’s policies — from mandating that nursing homes accept Coronavirus patients to giving them legal immunity for anything they do — has led to thousands of elderly people dying of Coronavirus. It was recently revealed that Cuomo attempted to hide the data on nursing home deaths from federal authorities, making it appear that fewer elderly New Yorkers had died. His policies directly led to Coronavirus devastating the state’s elderly population, and he responded not by taking responsibility but by trying to cover it up — trying to hide the suffering and death that he caused.
And when the vaccine came around, Cuomo threw the established distribution plan out the window and demanded that he have full control of the process himself, rather than state health officials. The vaccine is only available at hospitals — not at pharmacies or public distribution sites like in other states — and, for a time, was barely being dispensed outside of normal 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday business hours. In addition to giving out vaccines tremendously slowly, Cuomo deputized the vaccine rollout to the Greater New York Hospital Association — a trade group which donated two million dollars to his gubernatorial campaigns. Cuomo took the vaccine rollout out of the hands of public health officials, seized control of it himself, and then handed over the process of day-to-day implementation to a major donor. Between his liability waivers for nursing homes and his indulgence of the Greater New York Hospital Association with vaccine contracts, it appears that Cuomo has a strong preference for rewarding those who have given him money in the past.
Cuomo has also displayed almost Nixonian behavior when it comes to suppressing his critics. Ron Kim, a member of the state legislature who drafted a bill to revoke the expansive emergency powers with which Cuomo is vested, received a late-night call from Cuomo in which the governor threatened to end his career if Kim did not retract his criticisms. Kim, whose uncle died of COVID in a nursing home, has been a particularly vocal opponent of Cuomo’s policies in that area, and has been raising the alarm over Cuomo’s coverup of nursing home death counts. Cuomo called a legislator to threaten and berate him for telling the truth — the culmination of a COVID response based on lies, intimidation, and grift.
Is this the way a good leader acts?
Cuomo consistently tried to shift blame to others for his own failings — perhaps, most repulsively, trying to foist blame onto everyday working people who are simply trying to stay alive. In one of the misanthropic press conference eruptions that characterize his governorship, Cuomo said, “And just to make it very simple, if you were socially distant and you wore a mask and you were smart, none of this would be a problem. It’s all self-imposed. It’s all self-imposed. If you didn’t eat the cheesecake, you wouldn’t have a weight problem. It’s all self-imposed.”
It’s all self-imposed. How obscene is that? He might as well be saying, “Hey, you there, it’s your fault that your grandma died — even though I’m the guy who ordered that sick people be allowed into the home where she lived to spread the virus freely, and who then gave companies immunity so that you couldn’t sue them for what they did wrong!” Cuomo — angry, defensive, openly contemptuous of everyday people — just went straight out and said that the pandemic was so bad because of normal people’s choices, rather than the catastrophic mismanagement by powerful people like him. Leaders at every level of government have been doing this — blaming individual people for the crisis that was caused largely by government failings — but Cuomo’s blame-shifting is the most obviously misanthropic. After a horrific series of blunders, from vacillating on shutting down the state to sending COVID into the nursing homes, Cuomo nonetheless tries to blame normal people not being “smart,” rather than taking responsibility himself. This is, frankly, the mark of a cowardly, narcissistic ghoul — not the great and glorious leader of the media’s imagination.
This is why it has been so maddening for so many people to see Cuomo turned into some sort of COVID-slaying saint. He did nothing to deserve it. His actual actions were horribly incompetent and cruel — but the media doesn’t care about any of that. They just cared about his television briefings. Though I must admit I don’t fully understand that either — far from being the kind, reassuring father figure that the media made him out to be, Cuomo in his daily briefings was often caustic, rude, belittling reporter’s intelligence and making awful blame-shifting arguments like the one I quoted above.
But I suppose even the actual substance of his briefings didn’t matter either. They just needed a Democratic counterpoint to Trump’s idiocy — no matter how idiotic the counterpoint was himself — and Cuomo was happy to provide himself. Of course, the fact that America’s largest media companies are headquartered in New York probably had something to do with Cuomo being chosen as the COVID Savior — it was largely a matter of proximity. But the creation of an Anti-Trump, a hero who jittery liberals could focus their admiration on, is good for Democratic partisan politics — it allowed the Democrats to run a sort of shadow government, with some commentators even saying that Cuomo was acting like the president of the United States. Cuomo functioned as a sort of votive offering, on whom people could place all their yearnings for a competent government in this crisis — ignoring how Cuomo wasn’t so competent himself. It became a very simple political fable: Trump and Cuomo facing off in a trial-by-combat, a one-on-one battle between figures who were acting as stand-ins for the partisan hatred and anger of millions of people. Characterized as a showdown between good and evil, the Trump-Cuomo media dichotomy would probably be much better characterized as one between evil and, well, evil.
And so a bungling incompetent governor became a titan of sanity and good governance. Despite his mismanagement resulting in countless deaths across his state, Cuomo was heaped with praise and accolades from the media and transformed into a heroic figure — admired for his non-existent competence, his non-existent kindness, and his non-existent humanity. The media image that was created for Cuomo is almost diametrically opposed to what one would see when looking at the facts of his governorship. If anything, the apotheosis of Andrew Cuomo should be a reminder of how the media is able to shape public perceptions — and how a lie can become true if it is repeated often enough.