Media Notes: 'Candidate' Cuomo proves elusive to the press

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010; C06


Andrew Cuomo's path to the governor's mansion once occupied by his father suddenly looks like a superhighway express lane.

His flawlessly orchestrated non-campaign has hit just one pothole: Some reporters are miffed that the state attorney general is studiously avoiding their favorite subject, the upcoming race.

"What a shock that they're grumbling," Cuomo says in an interview. "I do press conferences all the time all over the state. I'm in newspapers and on TV with tremendous frequency. I don't talk to them about what they want to talk about, however. The political guys want to talk politics. I understand what they want -- but I don't want to do it," he says, laughing.

The reason, with Election Day less than seven months away? Attorney general "is not a political job," the Democrat says. "The combination of politics and law enforcement is not a good combination."

Cuomo is hardly hiding in the shadows. He held a conference call with 100 reporters last week after filing a civil suit against the state Senate's majority leader, Pedro Espada Jr., on charges of siphoning more than $14 million from health clinics he founded for vacations, campaign expenses and $20,000 in takeout sushi. For good measure, Cuomo held a news conference on the case the next day. But he is strictly business at such media events, and that, says Fred Dicker, the New York Post's state editor, can get frustrating.

"Every time we see him, the press corps generally asks him, 'What's the latest with your political timetable?' " Dicker says. "He just ducks it."

Bob Hardt, political director of NY1, says it is "kind of depressing" that Cuomo hasn't given the cable channel an interview for several years.

"Over the years he's recognized he can be his own worst enemy," Hardt says. "By curtailing his press availabilities, he limits the ability to damage himself. . . . A lot of people regard Andrew Cuomo as a governor-in-waiting, and we don't know what his positions are on key issues."

Cuomo knows precisely how the game is played. He was 24 when he helped run his father Mario's first gubernatorial campaign, and his brother is ABC correspondent Chris Cuomo. "They want the politics," he says of the press. "They want me to announce for office. They want the campaign to start."

The private grousing burst into public view earlier this month with a front-page New York Times story on how he is "attracting favorable coverage" by "relentlessly working the news media in a way that is unseen by the public and that is challenging for those trying to pin him down on any issue." Imagine!

The piece pointed out that Cuomo frequently calls political reporters to chat, but strictly off the record. That amused one senior Cuomo aide, who insisted on speaking on background because he has no connection to the soon-to-be-launched campaign. The official noted that Times correspondents in Albany are perfectly happy to have off-the-record conversations with the attorney general.

"I thought the Times story was schizophrenic," says Dicker, adding that Cuomo is more accessible, on a not-for-attribution basis, than his two predecessors.

The media complaints are a sign of how elusive a target Cuomo has been for this city's two-fisted press corps. And that stands in marked contrast to the debacle of his gubernatorial bid eight years ago.

After serving as Bill Clinton's housing and urban development secretary, Cuomo drew flak from African American leaders for trying to knock off the first statewide elected black official, state comptroller Carl McCall, and for unleashing overly harsh attacks against the Republican incumbent, George Pataki. Cuomo wound up withdrawing a week before the primary. A year later, he suffered through embarrassing tabloid coverage over his messy divorce from Kerry Kennedy Cuomo.

But after Cuomo won the attorney general's job in 2006, he brought a series of corruption cases, retooled his reputation and lay exceedingly low as his likely opponent, appointed Gov. David Paterson, self-destructed over a scandal broken by the Times.

The calendar is on Cuomo's side, with three second-tier Republicans battling for the chance to oppose him while he tends to his day job. "There will be a time when there is a campaign," Cuomo says. "But that time is not April, when there is no primary and I have no opponent." Therefore, he says, he doesn't have to answer such press questions as "Republican people say you have horns; do you actually have horns?"

Of course, Cuomo is running right now. But he knows, and the media know, that the day he announces is the day he can no longer float above the grubby fray of politics. The journalists are starting to throw some punches, but the unscratched non-candidate is refusing to step into the ring.

White House confidential

From Henry Kissinger briefing reporters as a "senior administration official" to Ronald Reagan being "up to my keister with these leaks," every White House has grappled with information passed to the media without attribution.

The problem is that both sides have an interest in the current system: Journalists vacuum up inside information, while President Obama's aides float trial balloons and preview policy pronouncements.

In my recent CNN interview with Robert Gibbs, the press secretary said he offered the White House Correspondents' Association a deal: "We won't do background, you don't do background. . . . The specific offer was, if you've got a background source, one, you should put them on the record. And if you're not going to put them on the record, then have somebody at the White House -- give them an opportunity to say that that is or is not true. And we would attach our name to it."

While Gibbs didn't deny that he and his colleagues anonymously provide information at times, he blamed unauthorized leaks on "people that didn't win an argument . . . and then they want to find some way to litigate it in the media."

Bloomberg's Edwin Chen, who heads the correspondents' association, responded by e-mail: "Taken at face value, Robert's high-minded offer went nowhere and is unworkable because the press is not monolithic -- thank goodness. We probably could never agree to act as a single bloc on anything short of defending the freedom of the press; there will always be the outliers who can't resist the temptation of scoring 'a scoop' based on anonymous source(s)."

In the interview, Gibbs complained that the press briefings have become a cable show: "I sometimes joke that I know when somebody thinks they have a good question, because when I walk in they've already got their makeup on." He said the correspondents are playing to the cameras: "We all are. I'm not absolving myself from that."

Days after Gibbs met with Chen and other correspondents unhappy about limited access, the White House began making some modest changes. When Obama met with congressional leaders on the Supreme Court vacancy, a press pool was allowed to ask a couple of questions. And when Obama called the Endeavour astronauts, pool photographers were allowed to take pictures -- a contrast with recent occasions in which the White House released an official photo.

One growing problem for both sides is the dwindling use of press charters for the president's trips. With fewer cash-strapped news outlets willing to underwrite the cost, reporters were forced to fly commercial on Obama's visits to Prague and Cape Canaveral -- and some White House support staff had to be left home rather than hitching a ride on the press charter. This deprives reporters of in-flight briefings -- yes, sometimes on background -- and when news breaks, such as the Justice John Paul Stevens retirement as they flew home from Prague, they are literally out of the loop.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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