WATERTOWN — Journalists recently regained in-person access to Gov. Andrew Cuomo after a hiatus of several months.
Since early December, Cuomo had not allowed members of the news media to attend his briefings. He and his staffers said this was due to new guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Since the beginning, we’ve talked about the important role the media has played in educating the public about this pandemic,” senior adviser Richard Azzopardi said in a Dec. 8 news release, according to a story published that day by the New York Daily Times. “But given the new stricter CDC guidelines released [Dec. 4] and the reality of rising cases in New York, going remote is now the most prudent action.”
So reporters had to call in to participate in Cuomo’s news briefings. But those who regularly covered Cuomo found themselves shut out of the process. Understandably, this didn’t sit well with them.
“Reporters at the state Capitol are calling on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to consider equity when picking which journalists get to ask questions during the governor’s virtual news conferences, including giving more transparency and accessibility to the press. The Legislative Correspondents Association, made up of dozens of reporters and editors from various news outlets who cover the state Capitol in Albany, sent a letter [Feb. 1] requesting Cuomo allow reporters to ask at least one follow-up question; diversify which reporters are selected for questions by taking into account race, ethnicity, gender and age; and alert news outlets at least two hours in advance of his public appearances,” according to a story published Feb. 4 by the Times Union in Albany. “When the coronavirus pandemic engulfed New York last year, the governor shifted his briefings — typically held in the Red Room at the state Capitol — to conference calls and also to the popular online platform Zoom. But who gets picked to ask a question and their inability to ask follow-up questions for clarity have plagued Albany reporters for months, who have taken to social media channels to highlight the inequities. Some reporters described that despite taking part in dozens of the governor’s briefings and requesting to ask a question, they are passed over for reporters [whom] Cuomo and his executive team appear to favor.”
Cuomo reinstated in-person press briefings last week. But that doesn’t mean things are operating smoothly.
The knock on Cuomo now is that his staffers will send notices of upcoming news conferences right before they’re held. Some reporters said they’ve received emails of his daily schedule just an hour before an event — there’s no way for them to arrive on time to cover it.
Of course, micromanaging the news media is nothing new to the Cuomo administration.
Jimmy Vielkind, who covers state politics for the Wall Street Journal, wrote a Dec. 7, 2017, article for POLITICO. He said that Cuomo staffers tried to persuade reporters to ask specific questions during a scheduled conference call. Vielkind founded POLITICO’s New York capital bureau in 2013 and has covered Albany for various publications since 2008.
“Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to take questions from the Albany press corps by phone rather than in person on [Dec. 3], even though he was in the capital city, and his aides contacted several reporters in hopes of planting questions with them. It’s the second such conference call in three days for the Democratic governor, who is trying to rally opposition to the federal tax overhaul because it curtails the deductibility of state and local taxes,” Vielkind wrote. “While the issue has raised Cuomo’s profile with the national media — he was interviewed on National Public Radio earlier this week — he has not spoken in person with reporters at the Capitol since June. To show their dissatisfaction with the arrangement, Albany reporters from several outlets, including POLITICO, phoned in to the conference from outside Cuomo’s Capitol suite. Gubernatorial press aides then contacted several reporters, three of them said, hoping to have them ask if the governor was inclined to give state lawmakers a pay raise this year. They refused and were not called on during the conference call.”
Sure, Cuomo’s handlers claimed that virtual news briefings were a necessary response to the threat of spreading the coronavirus. But the timing of this prolonged arrangement conveniently coincided with news that the governor would rather not have to speak about with reporters.
In December, the first of numerous women accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. Then in January, state Attorney General Letitia James released a report showing that the administration undercounted COVID-19 deaths of nursing home residents by more than 50%.
It hasn’t gotten any better for the governor since then.
Cuomo is believed to have improperly used staff members to help him write the book he released last year. He also reportedly had state personnel deliver COVID-19 vaccinations to members of his family, whom he prioritized for receiving the shots. And on Thursday, the New York Times reported that Cuomo aides thwarted state health officials for five months from revealing the true number of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19.
Given the year that Cuomo has had, I get why he’s not eager to open himself up to reporters. But he’s responsible for the scandals that his administration is wallowing in, so he has no one else to blame.
Constituents deserve answers to their concerns about his conduct. Therefore, it would be appropriate for Cuomo to subject himself to diligent scrutiny from journalists.
However, his strategy is to hold off serious inquiries into these controversies for as long as possible and hope people get tired of it all. He’s taking ideas directly from the playbook of former President Bill Clinton.
Sadly, Cuomo believes this constitutes good governance. But it’s really nothing but political self-preservation. Either he doesn’t know the difference between the two or he doesn’t care.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.