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Gee, Did the Media Get Andrew Cuomo All Wrong?

Media criticism of media criticism, plus more stories for the long weekend.

A garbage barge on the East River.

(Hell Gate)

Did the New York press corps unfairly rush to judgment when reporting out the sexual harassment claims against Andrew Cuomo that ultimately forced the governor from office?

That's the gist of a strange piece of media criticism by the Washington Post's Erik Wemple that calls out several media outlets for running with an unreliable source, but mostly serves to bolster a narrative that has been repeated by Cuomo's allies—that the former governor was railroaded by a group of untrustworthy women.

Wemple zooms in on the case of Ana Liss-Jackson, a former staffer in the governor's office who was quoted in stories in the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, and Gothamist (disclosure: some of us used to work for these places). Earlier this year, Liss-Jackson gave a deposition in a civil case against Cuomo, one that Cuomo's team has been passing around, because in it, Liss-Jackson admits that she embellished many of the juicy details that she gave to those outlets about Cuomo's behavior, and that she told the reporters what they wanted to hear. It also appears that she misled the attorney general's office in their investigation. "I was exaggerating," she testified.

This is bad, obviously. Journalists should do their best to make sure their sourcing is as airtight as possible, especially when the stakes are so high. But focusing on Liss-Jackson misses the point. For one, Liss-Jackson was primarily used as a source in those stories to confirm that Cuomo's office was a "toxic" place to work, not to confirm allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. And more importantly, there were 10 other women listed in the attorney general's report whom the AG's office found Cuomo to have sexually harassed. Wemple waves them away. "All five criminal investigations into Cuomo’s conduct fizzled," Wemple writes, as if that means that Cuomo didn't really do anything wrong. 

In fact, the DA of Oswego County, who was leading one of those criminal investigations, said that his determination to not press charges did not mean that the claim was unfounded, but that the laws were written poorly, and he directly asked state legislators to fix the problem. "This investigation makes clear what victims, their advocates, police, and prosecutors have said for years: The current sex offense statutes in New York fail to properly hold offenders accountable," the DA said in a statement. "Please address this issue." He was referring to the case of Virginia Limmiatis, who said that Cuomo ran his fingers across her chest and then pressed his hand below her collarbone ("I'm going to say I see a spider on your shoulder," she says Cuomo told her). Other DAs made similar statements: that the complaints were credible, but that there wasn't enough evidence to bring before a jury.

Wemple argues that Liss-Jackson played a "pivotal role" in Cuomo's downfall, but did she play a more pivotal role than the 10 other women who were accusing him of misconduct? More than the thousands of COVID-related nursing home deaths that his administration attempted to whitewash, or the book the governor was writing at the height of the pandemic with the help of his government-paid aides (Cuomo's people maintain they were "volunteering") and got paid $5 million for? Both of those topics, in addition to the sexual harassment claims, were slated to be part of the state legislature's impeachment proceedings before Cuomo resigned in August of 2021. 

Wemple writes in his column that the "lesson" here is that "just because someone says something on the record doesn’t mean it’s ironclad." Team Cuomo seems to be taking a different lesson from his story: See? He was "Al Frankened." He didn't do anything wrong. These women aren't credible.

Some stories to take you into the long weekend:

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