Andrew Cuomo and the Lincoln Project were media-created debacles. What now?
The details of the two tales vary, but the narrative arcs are eerily similar ‘Cuomo’s political liability shield could only exist because the media built it for him.’ Photograph: Darren McGee/AP In the chaos of 2020, the national press corps used all of its magical myth-making and storytelling powers to conjure two towering political heroes for a country in crisis. From the maw of the media machine, the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, and the Lincoln Project emerged as our alleged sentinels bravely battling a deadly pandemic and an authoritarian president – and supposedly leading us with principles and morality into a new era of accountability and integrity. For millions of credulous liberals already bingeing on West Wing reruns, the twin tales conjured some more of that good old-fashioned hope-and-change nostalgia, and seemed to serve as a cheeky reminder that not all heroes wear capes. But in the last week, the facade has collapsed, revealing that those bravely trying to sound the alarm for months were right all along – and those benefiting from the media-driven fraud were attempting to evade accountability and self-servingly cover up a grotesquerie of mismanagement, corruption and abuse. Will the wrongdoers face any consequences or accountability? Or will they be treated like the purveyors of previous frauds, like the Iraq war and the financial crisis, and continue to be platformed and valorized by the press corps? And will our media overlords engage in any self-reflection about the monsters they manufactured? The details of the two tales vary, but the narrative arcs are eerily similar. That they crescendoed in the same single news cycle makes their cautionary tales all the more poignant. In Cuomo’s case, the Democratic governor’s aides were caught on tape effectively admitting that they “froze” and did not release the details of thousands of nursing home deaths from Covid-19 because they feared consequences from federal law enforcement officials. “We were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice, or what we give to you guys, and what we start saying, was going to be used against us,” Cuomo’s top aide told New York legislators on Wednesday. The comments were first reported by the New York Post. No doubt, Trump’s justice department was as highly politicized as Cuomo advisers feared – but that is hardly a legitimate justification for hiding details of thousands of deaths. And the framing of it as some innocent, unplanned, deer-in-the-headlights slip-up is absurd, considering the context. Cuomo’s administration hid the nursing home casualty data after his administration slipped provisions into the state budget that helped the governor’s largest healthcare industry donors obtain legal immunity for nursing home executives. At the time, New York legislators like Assemblyman Ron Kim were arguing that such liability shields were endangering nursing home residents by removing the threat of lawsuits against nursing home companies that tried to maximize profits by cutting corners. Kim and his allies were successful in repealing and limiting some aspects of those liability shields in August, but later that month it became clear the Cuomo administration had not been adequately disclosing details of the ongoing decimation occurring in nursing homes. As the nursing home death toll mounted, the media campaign to valorize the governor intensified In effect, burying the casualty information constructed two liability shields: one for a healthcare industry that dumped millions into New York Democratic party coffers, and another for Cuomo himself. It deprived Kim and other legislators of real-time data buttressing their arguments to halt the corporate immunity law (which was being replicated by other states and by Republicans in Congress). It also shielded the governor from political blowback for both his mismanagement of the crisis and his fealty to donors. That said, Cuomo’s political liability shield could only exist because the media built it for him. As the death toll mounted in New York, whistleblowers like Kim were all but ignored by a press corps giving Cuomo largely uncritical wall-to-wall coverage, depicting him as a swashbuckling lionheart saving his state from certain doom. CNN granted Cuomo a recurring primetime segment with his own brother, which was predictably used to pump up the governor. In one particularly noxious segment weeks after Cuomo helped his hospital-industry donors insert the corporate immunity provisions into the state budget, his brother remarked on all of the governor’s fawning press coverage, declaring: “You’re feeling pretty good about yourself these days, aren’t you?” As the nursing home death toll mounted, the media campaign to valorize the governor intensified, based on Cuomo’s press conferences. “Help, I Think I’m In Love With Andrew Cuomo?” Jezebel wrote. Vogue filed a similar piece, headlined: “Why We Are Crushing on Andrew Cuomo Right Now.” “The governor of New York found himself at the center of a deadly crisis,” Rolling Stone wrote. “His response has helped guide the nation.” Ultimately, as New York racked up the nation’s highest body count, and the press ignored Cuomo’s Democratic critics in the legislature, this deification all culminated in a macabre scene: standing in the shadow of his own Mount Covid, Cuomo received a six-figure deal to write a book about his leadership, and he was awarded an Emmy for his television performances. Meanwhile, more than 13,000 nursing home residents in the state have died. While the disaster in New York was unfolding, the Lincoln Project was busy launching one of the most self-enriching political enterprises in history. Here was a group of top Republican operatives who had spent their entire careers building the arch-conservative foundations of the modern Republican party. This rogues’ gallery is led by none other than Steve Schmidt, the operative who helped lift Sarah Palin out of obscurity and turn her into the precursor of Trump himself, and who still to this day openly brags about having run the campaigns to install rightwing justices on the US supreme court. But in 2020, the group saw a lucrative opportunity to suddenly pretend to be offended by the Republican party they had built, producing cheesy anti-Trump YouTube videos designed to separate liberal cable news viewers from their money and funnel it into their political consulting firms. This gambit could not have succeeded without the national press corps. Indeed, the entire project was created by a media that granted these Republican operatives laudatory headlines and cable TV news sinecures, billing them as earnest warriors for truth, justice and the American way – and hardly ever asking them about either their own own culpability in creating the Republican party or about the merit of their new ads. As a political project, the plan bombed. Data proved the group’s spots were largely ineffective in swaying voters against Trump, and Trump won more Republican votes than he did in 2016. But in other respects, the Lincoln Project was wildly successful. In one emblematic segment, fabulist Brian Williams used his cable TV platform to pretend the group swung the entire 2020 election, and most news outlets never mentioned how lucrative it all was. The Associated Press recently reported that “of the $90m Lincoln Project has raised, more than $50m has gone to firms controlled by the group’s leaders.” Thanks to the pundits’ reputation-laundering of the Lincoln Project’s leaders, they appeared to be positioned to launch their own media outlet. Only now do we learn that while the group was vacuuming up those tens of millions dollars and its leaders were being promoted on TV, Lincoln Project team members were reportedly hearing allegations that one of its co-founders, John Weaver, had been sexually harassing young men and pitching them on job opportunities at the Lincoln Project. The Lincoln Project offered a statement late last month saying it was “shocked” by the claims against Weaver, but according to New York Magazine, “the allegations against Weaver were an open secret in the company.” The magazine spoke to one person who recalled Schmidt and consultant Rick Wilson joking with other staff over drinks about how Weaver was “twisted” and “depraved”. A Lincoln Project billboard in Times Square. Photograph: Sopa Images/LightRocket/Getty Images While struggling to contain the fallout from the Weaver story, the Lincoln Project has reverted to Republican form, deploying the same ugly, authoritarian tactics it had purported to stand against as it pitched itself to liberal donors during the 2020 election. On Thursday, the Lincoln Project sought to spike a story by a reporter talking to one of its former consultants, Jennifer Horn. The group had already tried to smear Horn as greedy on her way out and significantly escalated their attacks by posting apparent screenshots from Horn’s private Twitter messages with the journalist. The group deleted its tweets after former co-founder George Conway wrote: “This looks on its face to be a violation of federal law and should be taken down immediately.” The Cuomo and Lincoln Project debacles are about different things, but they are both examples of the pervasive culture of impunity. America likes to tell itself it is about law and order, but its political religion promotes lawlessness and chaos. That religion is supported by an entire political and media infrastructure that typically rewards perpetrators and punishes whistleblowers. With the end of the Trump presidency, we’ve been told that we are entering a new era of accountability: one of Biden’s own speechwriters has asserted that “there must be accountability for lies and lawbreaking and we must learn from our mistakes … You cannot heal wounds you choose to ignore.” Cuomo and the Lincoln Project offer an opportunity to finally make that pivot – but it isn’t clear that will happen. In the former case, New York legislators can strip Cuomo of his emergency powers and impeach him and the state’s Democratic-controlled law enforcement apparatus can fully investigate the situation – as can the Biden justice department. At the same time, the national press corps can stop genuflecting to the governor and start listening to the warnings of his critics. In the case of the Lincoln Project, the press response is even more significant. The group isn’t an elected official in a public office with inherent relevance and authority. It is instead a pure creation of the media itself – meaning that the press corps effectively gets to decide if the organization faces accountability or not. So far, it looks like “not”. The Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz alleged that MSNBC put Lincoln Project members on its airwaves 17 times after the Weaver allegations first surfaced. In fact, even as details of the scandal exploded in the last 24 hours, MSNBC today opted to continue providing a platform to the group to continue to present itself as a legitimate, forthright and credible political player in the post-Trump era. To be sure, Cuomo’s Republican critics and the Lincoln Project’s Trump-aligned critics are hardly acting in good faith without an agenda. They have axes to grind, and they don’t have much credibility themselves. But that doesn’t negate the deeper questions here. Will this be a moment of accountability? Or will it go the other way? Will it be a moment when media organizations permanently establish that infrastructure of impunity, to the point where a governor can now get away with hiding a death toll and a GOP political group can retain its megaphone amid a sordid harassment scandal? We’re about to find out.