New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has an answer for critics who say the state didn’t react to the novel coronavirus quickly enough: Blame The New York Times.
Over the past several days, the governor has repeatedly used his press conferences to take shots at the self-described “Paper of Record,” lumping the publication in with other official organizations that were slow to react to the spread of COVID-19.
“Where were all the experts?” Cuomo said during a press conference earlier this week. “Where was The New York Times? Where was The Wall Street Journal? Where was all the bugle blowers who should say, ‘Be careful, there’s a virus in China that may be in the United States.’”
On Thursday, the governor got more specific. When asked about his response to critics who said other states were quicker to adopt measures to curb the spread of the virus, Cuomo instead said the paper’s editorial writers should be blamed along with other organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that supposedly did not sound the alarms early enough about the dangers of the virus.
“They didn’t write an editorial saying I should close down until after I closed down, right?” he complained.
“Where was The New York Times editorial board?” Cuomo continued moments later. “Everybody missed it. Governors don’t do global pandemics, that’s not in my job description.”
Either Cuomo didn’t actually read the Times’ coverage, or he has selective amnesia about the paper’s articles and the recommendations in op-eds when contrasted with his own response.
Beginning in mid-January, the Times has run multiple stories daily about the spread of the virus, tracing the pandemic from its initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, and chronicling scientists’ warnings about the disease and the first cases and deaths in many countries. Later that month, the paper was running at least half a dozen increasingly alarming items per day about the spread of the virus, particularly in Asia, and its effects on global markets.
At the time, some of the paper’s opinion columnists had a message as well: The threat of the virus is real, and scientists need to be driving policy.
In one column that ran on January 23, the same day Wuhan was sealed off from the rest of China by its government, Dr. Saad B. Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, warned about the danger of the novel virus. He argued that politicians need to let scientists dictate policy on issues: “border screenings, travel restrictions and potential quarantine have major public health consequences, and they should be driven by science and emerging biological and epidemiological evidence.”
“We are once again faced with the outbreak of an emerging pathogen with potentially global implications,” he wrote. “We don’t know how bad it will get. But there is no excuse for not getting ready for the worst. We already know the consequences of inaction.”
In January, before there were any confirmed known cases in New York, the Times ran at least ten opinion pieces speculating about the dangers of the virus and how the U.S. should react. The editorial board itself warned about the risks of the virus on Jan. 28, saying the U.S. needed to heed the concerns of health experts. And by mid-February, the Times opinion section ran op-eds arguing how “the rapid—sometimes necessarily draconian—response of governments and health authorities has made a dent in transmission.”
In an email to The Daily Beast, the governor’s senior adviser Rich Azzopardi reiterated Cuomo’s claim that the paper’s editorial board did not call for travel bans or a shutdown order until five days after the governor put New York on “pause.”
“For all of the Monday morning quarterbacking, it’s important to acknowledge the role everyone played, and didn’t play,” he said. “No one is saying articles weren’t written on the topic generally, but the point is, no one—not the experts, not the major health organizations, not the media who covered them, even The New York Times—were sounding the alarm on the potential for thousands of cases in the New York Metropolitan area before any testing confirmed a single case.”
While there were certainly mixed messages and little outright direction from the U.S. government, New York was still slower to react than other states and countries.
Infectious disease experts and doctors urged the closing of schools for days before the state eventually announced such action (Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said in late February that states should be prepared to close schools). The state government also dragged its feet as top health officials suggested that it was possible that many states would see stay-at-home measures. By the middle of the month, as New York attempted to mount a response to the virus, Cuomo was still feuding with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, declaring, “There’s not going to be any ‘you must stay in your house’ rule” (which he, in effect, reversed course on three days later when he put the state on “pause”).
And while Cuomo’s public approval rating has jumped and he has become a media darling and Democratic Party hero, in the months after the Times’ coverage, New York state still lagged behind some of the other localities affected by the coronavirus.
Though the state’s cases were growing, New York waited until after Washington and California had adopted widespread social-distancing measures to institute similar policies. In public statements, Cuomo attempted to reassure the public by proclaiming that the virus would not hit New York as particularly hard.
“When you’re saying, what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries,” Cuomo said in early March.
“New York City as a whole was late in social measures,” the city’s former deputy health commissioner Isaac B. Weisfuse said in a recent interview. “Any after-action review of the pandemic in New York City will focus on that issue. It has become the major issue in the transmission of the virus.”
Cuomo’s complaints about the press have not, however, reached the level of pettiness displayed daily by President Donald Trump, who continues to use the pandemic as an opportunity to complain about media coverage of his administration. As The Daily Beast reported this week, the president even encouraged his friend and unofficial adviser, Fox News host Sean Hannity, to explore legal action against the paper for its critical coverage.
And certainly Cuomo realizes the paper’s editorial board and opinion section have become easy punching bags for public figures of all political persuasions.
Over the past year several years, the paper’s op-ed section has been admonished for serious errors and bizarre editorial decisions. The Times opinion section hired and quickly fired a tech columnist who had a public friendship with a neo-Nazi. Another op-ed columnist was widely ridiculed for tweeting that an American-born Olympic ice skater was an immigrant. Climate-change skeptic Bret Stephens has repeatedly generated controversy from his perch at the Times, from peddling arguments with whiffs of race-science to attempting to get a George Washington University professor reprimanded by his bosses for mean tweets. The editorial board’s unprecedented endorsement of two Democratic presidential primary candidates (who both went on to lose without winning a single state) was also widely criticized for its lack of relevance or teeth in a crucial election year.
The Times was also far from perfect on the issue of the virus. The opinion section has published several columns downplaying the severity of the virus or suggesting that the measures pushed by top global epidemiologists were useless. But the depth of reporting on the virus on the paper’s news side, coupled with the warnings on the opinion side, do not make fair scapegoats for questions about the governor’s response to the virus.
“Public health professionals will also need to work with political leaders to make hard decisions on if or when large events should be canceled, workers should be told to telecommute, schools should change the way they operate or schools should close,” the Times opinion section warned in March, weeks before the governor put his state on “pause.”