Column: The collateral damage from Cuomo’s downfall
Andrew Cuomo, the departing governor of New York, announced his resignation Tuesday after months of defiance in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. A defiance, mind you, that was still present in his goodbye as he blamed “generational and cultural shifts” for his political demise, as if groping women were akin to cassette tapes and flip phones.
Nonetheless, in a couple of weeks the highest seat in New York State will be held by a woman for the first time, which would be a fitting end to an otherwise disheartening story.
Except this is not the end.
Not for Cuomo, not for the 11 women who bravely spoke out and not for the people trapped in the Cuomo vortex.
People like Roberta Kaplan, chairwoman of the anti-harassment group Time’s Up, who resigned after a report from the state attorney general’s office found she had reviewed a letter designed to discredit one of Cuomo’s accusers.
And my friend Alphonso David, formerly counsel to Cuomo and now president of the Human Rights Campaign, who is under review by the organization’s board because the attorney general’s report accused him of advising the governor — after David left state service — on responses to these scandals.
“I was never aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct,” he said in a recent statement to news outlets, “and no one ever reported them to me, as the report verifies.”
Nonetheless David, Kaplan and others now find their credibility questioned because of their connection to Cuomo — whether or not they intended to serve as enablers, whether or not they knew about the accusations.
Let’s not forget one important piece of collateral damage in the governor’s political implosion: the reputation of his brother, Chris Cuomo, the CNN host — and the integrity of the industry in which he works.
Conflicts of interest and full disclosure matter, so first of all: Chris Cuomo, like David, is a friend of mine. Also, I worked for CNN on and off from 2009 to 2020, when I stopped appearing and writing after a contract agreement could not be reached.
When the report revealed that Chris participated in strategy meetings with his brother in response to parts of this scandal, I was shocked, although I also understood why Chris would have done that. It’s his brother. But the concerns of conflicts of interest predate the report’s revelation.
Last year’s lovefest between the two, in which Chris repeatedly interviewed Andrew on CNN, was never hidden or subtle. It may have made great television, but it was not great journalism.
We were in the early stages of a pandemic, and the governor was a high-profile face of the government response. CNN certainly should have interviewed him. His brother should not have. This was a completely avoidable, self-inflicted wound that has come back to haunt all involved.
Since November, much has been reported about the attempts of the former president — and his allies — to overturn the election. From questioning the validity of the results at rallies to his role in the Jan. 6 terrorist attack at the Capitol, there is no question that the actions of the former president threatened democracy itself.
But here’s the rub: So do the actions of some news organizations. As much as democracy depends on accountability and good government, those are unlikely to thrive without trusted news outlets.
I do not fault Chris for wanting to help his brother, and I told him as much. The larger problem, however, arose because CNN lifted the ban on the two appearing together on air. That decision pulled more than just Chris into the governor’s vortex; it pulled in Chris’ colleagues as well.
Journalism is not an exact science, and objectivity doesn’t automatically come with the job. Practitioners get close through checks and balances. When reporters make mistakes, editors correct them. When a commentator steps out of bounds, the standards department reminds us of the boundaries. These safeguards are in place to maintain public trust. But when the industry willfully conflates news with entertainment for ratings and clicks, we risk losing the public’s trust.
It is the media that are called, and entrusted, to hold the powerful accountable. This role was deemed so important that it is enshrined in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. But modern American journalism can serve this function only if the electorate generally trusts mainstream news. That’s impossible if we cross clear lines with stunts like presenting the Brothers Cuomo as a news segment.
There’s no question it’s better to have the injustices out in the open and the offending man out of office, for the sake of past victims and so there won’t be any others. Society will pay a price for letting the situation get so out of hand, as people who have done good work are dragged down, and institutions that know better face consequences.
Any tally of the collateral damage must include not only Cuomo’s enablers, but also journalistic integrity itself.
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