Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Cuomo Limits Media Access For Good Reasons

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been hammered in some corners of the print media for not being more accessible and building virtual walls to control his message.

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Journalism in its simplest structure at a formal news conference means that a reporter asks a question, gets an answer, and then has a chance for one follow-up question in case the reporter didn’t like the answer to the first question.

That formula is respected and followed in every part of the state except, it appears, by the many members of the Capitol press corps, known as the Legislative Correspondents’ Association, the LCA.

Just as investigative reporters journalists are not obligated to act as judge and jury, a person is still innocent until proven guilty in our state and country.

The reporters assigned to cover the events at the Capitol are often rude, nasty, belligerent, sometimes obnoxious and disrespectful of the governor.

There was one instance, at a formal news conference, when a New York Post reporter was asking questions about nursing home deaths. She asked two questions and then the governor called on me. As I was asking my question, which was written down so I wouldn’t have my train of thought derailed, she continued to ask her question. Well, I won out. I got to ask my questions and they were answered to my satisfaction.

After that incident, a few months ago, the governor limited press access by setting up a video and phone conference call system. With this system the governor often limits the questions to four reporters and essentially the same reporters, a couple from New York City media and a couple from upstate media. There are usually 60 reporters calling in to hear what the governor has to say. So, with this method, the governor reaches more reporters while still staying on message.

Prior to being relegated to the video and phone conference calls, reporters were granted access to the governor at in-person events or formal news conferences with video and phone hookups for those who wanted to peer in to what was happening. The reporters around the state, except Albany, were all polite and respectful and asked questions when called upon. When the governor said he was finished taking questions the reporters around the state packed up and left the room peacefully.

When the governor held in-person news conferences at the Capitol, there were many times the governor would sit for more than a half hour taking questions from the media attending the event. When he would end the long question and answer sessions, reporters would still scream out questions as the governor exited the press room, known as the Red Room.

Due to this incessant barrage of questions, the governor has continued his duties as New York’s chief executive appearing around the state flanked by community leaders as well as state and local lawmakers and executives. The event barred the media but the video was offered online by what is known as a pool camera. After the event, the governor would schedule a news conference either via video or phone conference call. In this format he gives reporters a chance to ask questions hoping they will listen and ask questions about other important matters happening around the state. Sometimes those questions come from reporters in Rochester, Syracuse or Utica. A Rochester reporter would ask about social distancing rules at the celebrated Lilac Festival, a Syracuse reporter would ask about the State Fair opening and a Utica reporter asked about the progress of nanotechnology efforts in the Mohawk Valley.

The governor wants to demonstrate that these alleged scandals are not forcing him to hide in a corner and squander precious time of doing the people’s business. Since the allegations emerged the governor has continued to issue news releases about the work he has done and the money he is doling out to various communities. He has also signed a new state budget and other major pieces of legislation.

Meanwhile, the editors and reporters in the printed media who are upset with the governor don’t acknowledge their own failings when they complain. They don’t write about the answers the governor offers publicly regarding the allegations.

As you might know, the governor is under investigation by the state Assembly Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Letitia James’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The reason for these investigations is alleged sexual harassment, mainly in his office; underestimating the number of nursing home patients who died from Covid-19; returning Covid-19 positive patients to nursing homes from hospitals infecting other nursing home patients who did not have Covid-19; having his staff, who work at the pleasure of the governor, edit a book he wrote about his leadership during the Covid-19 outbreak; and that his family received Covid-19 tests when other New Yorkers were finding it difficult getting the test (not the vaccine).

Since the alleged scandals broke, the governor has taken questions from reporters, albeit not as many as he used to. Every time the governor has said he does not want to take questions about the investigations that are underway, reporters ask him questions about the allegations. The governor does the polite thing and answers the questions in some fashion. Maybe he should shut down the reporter and say, “Which part of ‘not taking questions about the investigations’ don’t you understand?” But he doesn’t.

At one time or another, the governor has given an answer to reporters’ questions about each individual alleged violation.

On sexual harassment: The governor has said he didn’t know the woman he was touching on the face or giving a gentle kiss to was uncomfortable with the touch at the time of the incident. He also said he did not sexually harass anyone or touch them inappropriately. He claimed at one time that there were ulterior political motives for these women to come forward publicly. One such accuser is running for Manhattan Borough President and wants to increase her name recognition, he says.

On underestimating the number of nursing home deaths: The governor and his staff have said they wanted to be sure they were not double counting the person who came from the nursing home but died in a hospital as the same person.

On returning Covid-19 positive patients to nursing homes from hospitals: The governor has said he was following federal guidelines at the time and if any nursing home could not adequately care for Covid-19 positive patients they should tell the health department and other arrangements would be made. Since the nursing homes, which are mostly for-profit and privately run, didn’t want to lose money the administrators said nothing to the health department and infected other healthy patients, many of whom died needlessly.

On editing a book he wrote about his leadership during the Covid-19 outbreak: The governor and his staff said they didn’t object because they either did the volunteer work on their own time or were loyal to the governor and believed in his mission so none of this mattered in the big picture.

On his family receiving Covid-19 tests, when other New Yorkers were finding it difficult getting the test: The governor said anyone who has an appointment to see him gets a test and it must show it was negative. Some reporters have noted state troopers used to go to the homes of Cuomo family members to administer the test. No one knows for certain if this really happened but if it did, this might be an ethics violation for using state resources for personal use.

The reporters may not be happy with these answers but at least they are answers to questions most governors would probably avoid answering. Even during a pandemic Cuomo has been the most accessible governor to the media in all the time I’ve worked at the Capitol. That’s six governors over a more than 40-year period.

These reporters and editorial writers should let the investigators investigate and until they come up with their final conclusions, keep in mind that a person is innocent until proven guilty. If investigative reporting does not interfere with the ongoing investigations then so be it, but don’t try to convict a person in an attempt to win a journalism award or be the first on the scene to do so. There should not be a rush to judgment when independent investigations are continuing.

In all this, I am not dismissing the First Amendment, freedom of the press and speech, but reporters have to keep in mind that in day-to-day engagement with government officials you get more with love than anger. To be respectful and polite to people, including the governor, this maneuver to put the reporters on the outside of the so-called inner circle might not have had to happen.

On Monday, the governor held a news event in Syracuse announcing the State Fair will be open at 50% capacity this year for in-person visitors. Reporters were allowed to attend the event in person. There was at least one LCA reporter, from the New York Post, who kept yelling out so many questions the governor had to cut her off to allow other local reporters to ask questions. All but two or three questions were about the allegations facing the governor. The governor flat out denied the allegations and at one point called a New York Times report about the allegations as “slurs and slander.” The governor then said, “People spread rumors, who knows why?”

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.
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