The gadol advised us not to do the story. He knew Cuomo, he knew the price our community could pay
Watching the downfall of Andrew Cuomo prompted me to search through my old emails.
More than a year ago, there was a story I felt it urgent for Mishpacha to cover: Cuomo’s horrific mismanagement of New York’s nursing homes during the first Covid wave.
I don’t know if there is a single leader anywhere in the world who “got Covid right” — the price for any decision is just so high that there have been countless victims in every direction, whether leaders put lives or livelihoods first. But the numbers coming out of the nursing homes, and Cuomo’s hubristic, opportunistic portrayal of himself as a victor in the face of so many hushed deaths, seemed to bespeak something beyond the standard leadership woes.
On June 15, 2020, I sent an email to one of our top writers.
I want to do an investigative report tracking what really went on in the New York nursing homes during the Covid crisis — whether Cuomo’s decisions really played a role in all those deaths, what kind of administrative options were available and not utilized, how the owners/staff of the nursing homes reacted, whether they protested, etc. Then I suggested several possible leads along with some concerns, and asked for his take.
The writer made some initial inquiries. Then he got back to me:
I spoke to someone in the nursing home industry. He said that no operator will talk on the record since they rely heavily on Cuomo for a variety of things and he’s known to be vindictive. I’m trying to speak to someone even off the record but it’s not simple. I’ll keep you posted.
That’s when the red lights started flashing. I can handle some off-the-record quotes, as long as they’re strong and accurate. But I didn’t want the magazine to serve as a medium to unleash anger and revenge on the frum community.
We asked our rabbinic advisor to consult with a gadol at the forefront of American leadership. The gadol advised us not to do the story. He knew Cuomo, he knew the price our community could pay.
That was the end of it, at least at that point.
But the incident left us with a lot of food for thought. Now that Cuomo is no longer in power — albeit for other reasons — we hope that a thorough investigation will in fact be conducted into his Covid protocols and the lives that were lost in so many nursing homes. And we hope, too, that the investigation will be conducted by those with the legal authority and financial means to pursue full justice.
The media like to talk of their mandate to “speak truth to power.” It’s a vitally important function — one of the markers and preservers of democracy with the historic ability to reform policy, overturn leaders, spark or end wars.
But if you tend to cynicism, you wonder how that mandate holds today, when every individual’s entitled to their “own truth” and when both power and oppression are said to lie in the eyes of the beholder. You surely wondered about it last year, when the media lauded Cuomo for his superior management skills while thousands of bereaved families screamed into the socially distanced silence.
Cynicism aside, our Torah-observant media outlets have always followed different rules. Even as we try to be that forum for dialogue about those aspects of our lifestyle that aren’t yet perfect, even as we raise alarms and raise criticism of damaging politics and policies, we remember that in some ways we’re still fragile strangers in exile. That we have a responsibility to our readership beyond packing a journalistic punch.
Fortunately, our magazine is in a place where we can take risks. We can run stories that provoke passionate responses, debate, complaints, and even anger. Of course, we work hard beforehand to craft these pieces sensitively and put them through layers of review. But when it came to Cuomo, the calculus wasn’t about the magazine. It was about the community we’re tied to.
Will people think we’re cowards, not true journalists, because we avoided the nursing home story and chose not to speak truth to power? Or will they understand that we must weigh our place as Jews in galus and can’t pursue every story we want to, because we have to consider the ramifications for our people?
I’m not sure of the answers. But I know we followed our truth — the truth of emunas chachamim. We can’t hope for better than that.
—Shoshana Friedman, Managing Editor
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 875)
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