A consensus has started to emerge in the media: Cable news networks must stop airing the president’s daily coronavirus briefings in full, which are dense with dangerous quackery. “There is a very real possibility that in broadcasting these press conferences live or in quickly publishing and blasting out his words in mobile alerts, we are actively misinforming our audience,” CNN’s Alex Koppelman wrote for the network’s Reliable Sources newsletter. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan argued, “These White House sessions—ostensibly meant to give the public critical and truthful information about this frightening crisis—are in fact working against that end.” Vox’s Matt Yglesias pleaded with networks to cut them off “for the sake of public health, journalistic integrity, and the public’s basic mental health.”
In contrast, there has been little hand-wringing about cable news’s airing of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s briefings, which have, Axios’s Mike Allen wrote on Wednesday, “become a staple of midday cable news.” If a media darling has emerged during the coronavirus crisis, it’s Cuomo. The governor, The New York Times’ Ben Smith wrote, “has emerged as the executive best suited for the coronavirus crisis.” Carl Bernstein told CNN that Cuomo has demonstrated “real leadership of the kind the president of the United States should have provided to the American people throughout this crisis, but hasn’t.” Even those close to the president are taking notes: CNN’s Brian Stelter reported over the weekend that “the White House has been watching Cuomo’s daily pressers very intently—and has been taking cues from the New York governor.”
With Joe Biden on the sidelines, it is Cuomo who has acted as Trump’s foil during the ongoing crisis, as well as the de facto leader of the opposition. But the ongoing love affair between the press and the New York governor reveals as much about what the media values in a leader as it does about Cuomo’s performance.
Cuomo is manifestly not the type of politician one would expect to play the role of comforter in chief. A ruthless and exacting dealmaker, he governs by greasing the wheels and pulling the levers of power. Despite being mentored by Bill Clinton, he does not feel your pain. Despite being the son of Mario Cuomo, lofty rhetoric is not his thing. He is a scowler and a schemer more in the model of Lyndon Johnson. He is gruff and never seems to be having any fun. His way of doing business gets things done—his backers would argue he has accomplished more than any other state-level politician over the past decade—but often leaves many dissatisfied, thanks to the myriad compromises made along the way.
But Cuomo has used his press briefings to wrestle with his emotions. He has talked about missing one of his daughters, who was quarantined after possibly being exposed to the coronavirus, and the blessing of getting to spend time with another daughter over the past two weeks. He has worried about his own elderly mother. He has raged and pleaded with the president for help, with the relationship between the two shifting on a seemingly hourly basis. And he has reminded people again and again where the buck stops. “If someone wants to blame someone, blame me,” he said last week, while ordering the shuttering of all nonessential businesses in the state. “There is no one else responsible for this decision.”
With a media obsessed with subtweets and clap backs of the president, Cuomo has a great deal to offer. One could read his daily press conferences as rebuttals of the president, who notoriously said he “takes no responsibility at all” for the government’s failures. He is the anti-Trump, even if his critiques are implicit rather than explicit. The fact that he has only criticized the president directly on a handful of occasions only bolsters his standing—proof that Cuomo is above politics in a moment of national crisis.
If the media treats politics as an etiquette class, Cuomo is the star pupil. The near-universal praise of Cuomo is best read as a finger-wagging message to the president: Be more like Andrew. Trump’s crimes against the aesthetics of governance, as well as the abstract principles of leadership that every news anchor inevitably writes a book about, regularly receive more attention than the horrors his administration has unleashed against the country’s most vulnerable people. The media’s coverage of the coronavirus is no different, with the president’s (admittedly disastrous) press conferences and tweets getting as much outrage as his administration’s myriad failures to prepare the country for an inevitable outbreak. In Cuomo, the bruiser striving to be a father figure, the press has found the perfect counterpoint.
Cuomo’s actual performance has been secondary to his press conferences. California’s Governor Gavin Newsom acted more quickly, shutting businesses down days before New York did. New York currently has 10 times as many cases as California. But Newsom’s briefings have not become the events that Cuomo’s have. Criticisms of Cuomo, particularly of his plan to make cuts to Medicaid in an effort to trim the state’s budget deficit, have failed to break through the rush to coronate him.
Biden is trying to butt in—if, that is, his team can figure out how to do a 10-minute livestream once a day—but it looks like Cuomo will continue to be the Democrats’ de facto leader on this issue. That is partly due to the fact that New York is by far the hardest-hit state. With hospitals and morgues in New York City filling up, the governor’s response will receive considerable attention.
The president’s own maneuvers, particularly his insistence that the country reopen for business by Easter, are also setting up a clash with Cuomo and other governors. As The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday, the administration is hoping to lay the blame for an ongoing economic collapse on governors, particularly Cuomo. The administration may want to reconsider. This may not be the time to pick a fight with Cuomo, who has the entire national media behind him.