In his book Simulacra and Simulation, the French theorist Jean Baudrillard explored the means by which the media creates alternate realities. Consider, for example, that many Americans believe that Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, is a hero of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The organisers of the 2020 Emmys think so. Cuomo has been awarded an Emmy:
No doubt, Cuomo’s televised briefings exuded calm. It would be churlish to deny that many people profited from them. But it is also worth asking about Cuomo’s record off-screen.
The appearance of success is something Cuomo has assiduously cultivated. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Cuomo said: “We climbed the impossible mountain, and right now we are on the other side.” Three months later, cases are spiking again, schools are shutting down and bars, restaurants and gyms are facing strict curfews. Somehow, between March and October, Cuomo found the time to write a book, American Crisis, about his own bold and tireless leadership during the ongoing pandemic. This critic asked, how in God’s name did he have the time?
Cuomo was not alone in whitewashing his performance. His younger brother, conveniently, hosts a news programme on CNN and Cuomo could depend on being treated with what might be called “our kid’s gloves”. Journalists fixated on sick-making trivialities like a trend, which should have lived and died on Twitter, for liberals calling themselves “Cuomosexuals”.
But there were a few dissenters. David Graham of the Atlantic has pointed out that it is “evident that the perception of Andrew Cuomo’s competence and the reality of his performance are at odds.” Cuomo spent the first weeks of March telling New Yorkers that despite fears regarding Covid-19, “reality [was] reassuring” and they could continue to live as normal. Once the crisis truly struck, he was responsible for the disastrous decision to mandate that nursing homes not be allowed to discriminate between Covid-negative and Covid-positive patients. As Joe Sexton of ProPublica points out, Cuomo has still not announced how many New Yorkers died in nursing homes.
Cuomo was not alone in making these mistakes, of course. Many politicians and public health organisations downplayed the risks of Covid-19, including people and bodies with more knowledge and authority, such as the President of the United States and the World Health Organisation. Nor was Cuomo was alone in underestimating the threat that the pandemic posed to care homes, as British readers must be painfully aware.
With that said, nobody is suggesting that Donald Trump or Boris Johnson are heroes of 2020. Cuomo might not have been exceptionally incompetent but his sanctification implies that he has been exceptionally successful. This is an implication that depends not on his actual record but his smooth PR skills — and the talent of the media for creating emotional satisfying, if largely fictitious, realities.