The Cuomo Problem Is Bigger Than The Cuomos

As someone with a middle class chip on his shoulder, I never missed the air of privilege around the Cuomo brothers. I would never question their talents in politics or broadcasting. I would never question their hard work. But I could never look at either of them and not understand how fully they were standing on the shoulders of their father.

There are many people who are talented the way the Cuomos are, but those people are still covering two-inch deep snow storms in Nashville or running small towns in upstate New York. They did not have Mario Cuomo as a father. They didn’t and don’t have that advantage and so most of us will never know their names, or their talents.

When Mario Cuomo gave a speech or sat for an interview he spoke from a place of earned wisdom. Yes, there could be a tone of arrogance in his demeanor, but he too had a chip on his shoulder, because he could never forget that he had to work harder than everyone else to achieve what he had achieved, because his name ended in a vowel and that placed him at a disadvantage in the America of his younger years.

That edgy demeanor and tone of voice is also present in former Governor Andrew Cuomo and former news anchor Chris Cuomo. Listening to an Andrew Cuomo news conference, or speech, is like listening to a lecture from a college professor who allows no questions. Watching a Chris Cuomo interview is like watching a judge who will not allow an objection to his rulings. To paraphrase former Texas Governor Ann Richards, Andrew and Chris were born on third base and think they hit a triple.

Having said all that, I have no ill will toward the Cuomo brothers. I do not rejoice in their downfall. I have been up close and personal with politicians and minor celebrities who have lived through the same kind of public humiliation. It is painful and ugly and hard for the target of public condemnation and for those who surround them. For those who make a living in the public eye, the rejection is often more hurtful than any fine or prison term.

The fall of the Cuomo brothers was not predictable or inevitable, but it is a warning signal to people throughout the world of journalism and politics who succeed — in large part — because of their personal and family connections.

I have observed before — as a journalist and as someone who works in the field of public relations — that news organizations are almost uniformly terrible at their own crisis communications. Reporters relish the opportunity to question others and yes, make them squirm, but when the questions are coming at them, they clam up, shutdown, and hide behind human resources excuses to avoid full transparency.

With respect to the Cuomos, I noticed that in both the case of Andrew and Chris, when the hard questions started coming at them, they both answered those questions from a position of privilege. The defenses they offered were based in the general argument that “I Andrew” or “I Chris” could never do what I am being accused of, because “I am Andrew Cuomo” or “I am Chris Cuomo.”

This is the same construction news organizations often use to defend themselves against charges of bias or questionable ethics. We can never do wrong, because we have high standards. The highest.

When I studied journalism in college I was taught to avoid personal relationships with sources. I was told to never accept a free meal. I was even encouraged to think about not registering with a political party and not voting to preserve my position as a completely objective observer. For several years, when I first began working as a reporter, I did not vote, until I decided on my own that being a journalist should not require me to give up my rights as a citizen.

As I gained more experience I realized that, especially when it comes to political coverage, it is hard for news reporters to avoid becoming close to the politicians they cover. There is a very social aspect to politics. It requires constant, close human interaction and there is a symbiosis between politicians and the press. Elected officials are in a constant conversation about public policy and the news media is where that conversation plays out. Human beings have a way of becoming friends whether they intend to or not. The cross-over is almost impossible to avoid. Eventually a friend is asked to consider hiring his friend’s son or daughter.

This plays out in small ways locally, but on the national stage the relationships are bigger and more obvious. I do not want to name check the rosters of national news organizations, especially television networks, because I do not mean to question the credentials of every single reporter who has a family connection to a current or past political leader. But you know I could.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that every national reporter with a family connection to the world they cover, has paid their dues and earned their place at the top of their profession. Let’s also stipulate that that cannot possibly be true.

Of the thousands of hard working reporters out there, covering small time local stories every day, it is impossible to believe none of them is talented enough to make it to the journalism big leagues, but the ones that do also happen to be connected to well known political families by direct relation or otherwise.

I can hear a spokesman for one of the major media companies explaining:

We searched far and wide and the best journalists we could find for these very few, precious slots on our news teams happened to be the daughters or sons of someone we are supposed to cover with objectivity. And yes, they are only twenty-five years old, but that just places a greater spotlight on their pure talent.

The unraveling of the Cuomo brothers might have been predictable based on the way they tempted fate with their self-assured pomposity. Their case makes it more predictable that another of these questionable personnel connections between news organizations and the people they are supposed to cover will at some point in the future yield similar results.

Since Chris Cuomo’s dismissal from CNN (and even before) there have been a number of news articles and opinion pieces questioning whether Chris should have held the high profile role he had at the same time his brother was serving as governor of one of the biggest states in the nation. Clearly, eventually, such a relationship would lead to a conflict of interest in the newsroom, because so much of our national news originates in New York. Specifically, New York City.

What do we do about these conflicts? It seems unfair to ban anyone with personal connections to people in the news from careers in journalism. Certainly many of them have talent and credentials to match. As is often the case, the only solution would seem to be increased transparency and closer scrutiny by those who cover the news media as their beat.

Given the track record of news organizations facing conflict of interest or personnel crises, it may be unreasonable to expect a new level of transparency on these matters. The preferred approach has long been; We should not be questioned, because we have high standards.

For more stories visit ThisDecisiveMoment.com

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Dean Pagani

Dean Pagani

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.

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