Andrew Cuomo: optics over substance

February 28, 2021

It is an egregiously callous move for the Academy to give a holder of public office a trophy in a bid to shore up its declining viewership while his constituents are dying and as the politician faces allegations of corruption

When it was announced that this year’s International Emmy Founders’ Award would go to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in recognition of “his leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic and his masterful use of television to inform and calm people around the world,” it was seen by most as the dying throes of an award show grasping at relevance by some, more evidence of liberal media bias by others and an indictment of modern politics, which values style over substance. But few would have said that the recipient wasn’t having a moment of overwhelming ubiquity.

For 111 days the sight of Cuomo, whose Queens accent you would immediately recognise if you had tuned into CNN any day over the past year, flanked by aides and presenting slide after slide at a time when New York was the coronavirus capital of the world, was a constant. Millions tuned in to see daily briefings that advocated mask-wearing and common-sense precautions in a style that evoked both avuncular concern and school-teacher sternness.

In the absence of leadership from the White House, the narrative practically created itself. Cuomo presented a stark antithesis to Trump, despite what they had in common. Both of them are Queens natives who parlayed the influence of their fathers into positions of power, while playing up their non-existent working-class credentials. To be fair, Cuomo does this with more finesse. A typical Cuomo press conference was peppered with anecdotes about family, dad jokes and, in one instance, a three-minute aside on spaghetti and meatballs. As New York’s Covid cases dropped, Cuomo’s award became the latest in a series of accolades: a book deal that yielded a New York Times’ bestseller, he was dubbed ‘America’s Governor’, and there was even talk of a late addition to the Democratic ticket for the 2020 presidential election.

Cuomo’s Emmy-win grates, especially in light of revelations that his office had misled the public about the number of deaths in New York’s nursing homes, undercounting them by as much as half and had bullied other officials into being complicit in the cover-up. A New York Post report details a meeting in which an aide confessed to purposely withholding information and recounts a livid Cuomo trying to threaten fellow Democratic Senator Ron Kim into secrecy. Refusing to vaccinate inmates in overflowing penitentiaries and delaying closing down eating establishments in the pandemic’s early days are other marks against Cuomo.

It’s easy to see how the Trump administration’s bungled response to the pandemic spared Cuomo from a closer look at his own record. One can’t help but feel that the left-wing news media avoided tougher interrogations to keep the focus squarely on a Republican president in an election year. Today, the anti-Cuomo narrative is building steadily. The fact that talk of impeaching the governor is gaining traction on both sides of the aisle, at a time when bipartisanship feels like a distant memory, speaks to the startling efficiency with which he has managed to burn bridges with his political peers.

As digital media bemoaned the performative nature of modern politics, in which public servants are less people than they are the creations of speechwriters, PR professionals and focus-group feedback, it might be tempting to consider this as something distinctive of the post-Trump era. But the fact is it has been so since the very first televised political debate in 1960, in which a young, ice-cool Kennedy won the battle of optics against a profusely sweating Nixon.

Politicians make for controversial award nominees even when they don’t promptly follow up their acceptance speeches with another round of carpet bombings à la Barrack Obama. But, in a way, the decision to award Cuomo with an Emmy does make sense. In the strange and heady early days of the pandemic, when misinformation abounded, hospital beds reached capacity and mass panic built, millions tuned in for Cuomo’s reassuring, Churchillian message because it was compelling television. It was gripping because the stakes were very real and personal because it was about us. Like the very best television, you could talk about it with your friends because suddenly everybody was watching the same show. The Academy’s statement recognises this fact: “The Governor’s 111 daily briefings worked so well because he effectively created television shows, with characters, plot lines and stories of success and failure.”

It is an egregiously callous move for the Academy to give a holder of public office a trophy in a bid to escape its declining viewership (14 percent less than last year) while his constituents are dying and as the politician faces allegations of corruption. But that’s no surprise to the seasoned television viewer, who saw the jurors of the Emmys ignore The Wire for all six years of its brilliant run on television. Cuomo will walk out of this scandal relatively unscathed, as consummate politicians tend to do, and the Emmys will continue their slow descent into irrelevance.

The writer is an aspiring filmmaker and a graduate of the University of Southern California

Andrew Cuomo: optics over substance