Each year, as part of the International Emmy Awards, the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recognizes creatives whose TV work “crosses cultural boundaries to touch our common humanity” with their Founders Award. Past recipients have included groundbreaking sitcom producer Norman Lear, beloved puppeteer Jim Henson, and talk show legend Oprah Winfrey. On November 20, the Academy announced that this year, the person who has most touched our common humanity through television is … New York Governor Andrew Cuomo?
Yes, because of the daily press briefings Cuomo held on how the New York government has been addressing the COVID-19 pandemic (specifically the 111 consecutive briefings from March 2 through June 19, 2020), the Academy has seen fit to grant him one of their honorary awards. Said Academy president and CEO Bruce L. Paisner: “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. People around the world tuned in to find out what was going on, and New York tough became a symbol of the determination to fight back.” So the Academy is justifying this unusual choice by claiming that Cuomo’s press events did such a good job of turning politics into entertainment.
Wait, isn’t that supposed to be one of the really bad things about contemporary society?
Let’s get one thing out plainly first: In absolutely no way, shape, or form has New York handled the COVID-19 pandemic competently under Andrew Cuomo. Hyperallergic is not a science or public health website, so in lieu of launching into a long explanation over this, I will defer to multiple other sources that have done a thorough job of explaining how badly this has been fucked up. Even setting aside more detailed accounts of the Cuomo administration’s blunderings, just a peek at the raw numbers should disabuse one of the notion that New York is faring or has fared better than other states during this crisis. But at question here is not Cuomo’s actual performance, but the perception of his performance. And when it comes to how he has appeared to handle the pandemic, he’s clearly done a much better job.
After all, the Academy is not the first to posit Cuomo’s COVID-19 press briefings as great television. Way back in March of this year, Vulture asserted that the briefings constituted “the most important show on TV.” That article goes so far as to call the briefings “comforting” and “indispensable,” calling him “America’s Coronavirus Dad.” What strikes me, though, is how Cuomo is lauded for doing what one would think is the bare minimum that we should expect of a politician in an emergency as if he’s being revolutionary: “Every day, Cuomo is sharing crucial information that people crave. He’s a regular presence at a specific time, which helps viewers establish a routine while they’re stuck in isolation.” Of course, given the colossal incompetence of the federal government (both specifically in regards to COVID and just in general), such standard behavior can seem highly skilled in contrast. And indeed, the article goes on to compare Cuomo’s assured briefing presentation with the sloppiness of the Trump administration’s dealings with the press. (Some more measured voices observed earlier in the year that people might have been latching on to Cuomo just because he did a better job of communicating than Trump.)
This is not the only high praise Cuomo has received for his COVID response. Jezebel (“Help, I Think I’m In Love With Andrew Cuomo???”) and the New York Times (“the [Democratic] party’s most prominent voice in a time of crisis”) have published their own appreciations, among many others. This boost to his image undergirded a chorus of calls for him to run for president in 2024. All of this over him simply showing up for press conferences, giving coherent explanations of what was going on, and sometimes criticizing Trump. Meanwhile, his own administration continuously fumbled (to put it most charitably) the pandemic, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. The fact that Cuomo received most of his glowing press in the spring, when New York (especially New York City) was being hit hardest by the virus, is baffling. Even more baffling is that the International Emmys are playing catch-up on this collective feting months later, after many people have become more aware of how severely New York bungled this. With the pandemic continuing unabated and Cuomo lashing out at reporters in a distinctly Trumpian fashion, the shine is decidedly off his press briefings. The fact that he had to be shamed out of violating the very Thanksgiving rules he lectured the public about speaks to how much personal authority he can legitimately lord over the rest of us.
Perhaps what’s most Trump-like about Cuomo is his sheer audacity. This man rushed out a book boasting about how he supposedly defeated COVID in New York before the pandemic was over, even as cases again continued to climb in New York. (And it now looks like it will be a long time before it will ever be over.) He accepted the Founders Award from the International Emmys with a speech in which he “humbly” claimed that his press briefings “offered only one thing, authentic truth and stability. But sometimes that’s enough.” Well … no. That is not nearly enough. When it comes to a global pandemic, you also have to enforce social distancing, close down as many public venues as possible, cancel rent, and much more. Most vitally, you need to do those things as soon as possible and not waffle on their implementation.
But again, we’re discussing style, not substance. But no one can muster acclaim for any tangible element of the aesthetic character of Cuomo’s press briefings, beyond the idea that he put on a good performance of basic humanity and competence. It seems that living under Trump has degraded what we expect of our politicians to a truly sorry degree. In the absence of real leadership, liberal institutions will latch on to even the flimsiest alternatives, regardless of their substance. Congrats to the governor on his award.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.