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Opinion | Key source in Andrew Cuomo’s downfall raps media coverage

First in a series on journalistic sourcing.

Does the New York Post care whether its sources know what they’re talking about?

An answer to that question is emerging in the legal fallout from the sexual harassment scandal that bounced Andrew M. Cuomo from the New York governor’s office two years ago. An August 2021 report from the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James found that the governor had “sexually harassed a number of current and former New York State employees” — and two of the alleged victims have filed suit over their treatment.

The proceedings are producing revelations that further contextualize the scandal. Last month, for instance, Ana Liss-Jackson, a much-quoted former aide who worked in Cuomo’s executive chamber from 2013 to 2015, was deposed in one of the cases. She fielded numerous inquiries about information she provided to the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, Gothamist and New York Magazine.

Whereas these outlets held up Liss-Jackson as an authoritative source on Cuomo’s tenure, her over-350-page deposition transcript — in the suit filed by a female New York State Police investigator (“Trooper 1” in lawsuit parlance) — portrays an aide lacking in firsthand knowledge and often trading in office gossip. There’s no such thing, to be sure, as a perfect, omniscient source, but Liss-Jackson’s words furnish a reminder to journalists that even on-the-record sources require hefty interrogation and corroboration.

‘I had no direct knowledge …’

“Inside Sandra Lee and Andrew Cuomo’s split: Gov’s cheating ‘an open secret,’ sources say.” That was the headline on an April 2021 New York Post story. Those sources were bashing Cuomo just as his power was unraveling in a drip-drip-drip of allegations of sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior. Like any good tabloid, the New York Post was piling on, claiming via unnamed sources that Cuomo had cheated on partner Sandra Lee with “at least one staffer and possibly several” — though none of the alleged paramours was identified.

Commentary for the unsubstantiated claims came on the record from Liss-Jackson. “My understanding is that Sandra was viewed … as merely an accessory,” the tabloid quoted her as saying.

Liss-Jackson was cited to support a variety of claims, including that Cuomo staffers kept the governor’s daily schedule away from Lee, a prominent TV chef; that Lee “never” stayed at the governor’s mansion; and that the staff participated in pool parties that turned into “nights of boozing.” Rita Glavin, who is representing Cuomo in the suit filed by “Trooper 1,” pressed Liss-Jackson in the July 10 deposition about her qualifications to speak on these matters. Did she have any “personal knowledge” that Lee was kept out of the loop? “Absolutely not,” replied Liss-Jackson, who said she “could only speculate based on what I observed.” On the general topic of the governor’s relationship with Lee, Liss-Jackson testified, “I had no direct knowledge of their relationship. What I observed was that it was positive and affectionate.”

Just how deep was Liss-Jackson’s expertise on the pool parties? “This was a piece of gossip that I had gleaned during my time socializing” with another colleague, said Liss-Jackson.

The inquiry from New York Post reporter Sara Nathan, Liss-Jackson recalled, came “out of the blue” — and headed in one direction. “She asked me leading questions that she had been — she said that she was hearing things from other sources, and could I confirm X, Y, or Z, and I said, ‘I think so,’” said Liss-Jackson.

Yet Liss-Jackson said she supplied red flags about her own input. “I was very clear with her in saying, ‘Listen, I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m not the source that you should be chasing after,’” Liss-Jackson testified.

Nathan referred questions to a New York Post spokesman, who emailed, “We stand by our reporting.” Cuomo has denied being unfaithful to Lee. Investigators working on behalf of the state’s attorney general vetted the rumors that Cuomo had engaged in romantic relationships with female underlings, including pressing at least three top staffers under oath on this point. They denied any such involvement, and the final attorney general report didn’t include such a finding.

In the arc of Cuomo’s downfall, Liss-Jackson played a pivotal role. Whereas some other sources were disguised by vague identifiers — “former staffer” was a mainstay — Liss-Jackson put her name behind her remarks. In her deposition, she chalked this up to her background as a broadcast journalist in Elmira, N.Y., after graduating from Ithaca College. “I didn’t want to be an anonymous source,” said Liss-Jackson, noting that on-the-record comments receive more “credence.”

That credence, however, isn’t always earned. A March 2021 Gothamist-WNYC story on Cuomo’s “toxic workplace” said this of Liss-Jackson’s position in the governor’s office hierarchy: “She was surprised, upon arriving, to be quickly invited by senior staffers to sit at a desk positioned right near the Governor — in his ‘line of sight,’ as she described it.” That’s a powerful detail in a climate where sexual harassment allegations are stacking up — essentially a setup in which Cuomo can leer at a young female staffer all day.

But there were at least four offices — connected by adjoining doors — between Liss-Jackson’s work station and the governor’s office. “I wasn’t trying to lead anyone to believe that I was sitting … within his direct line of sight when he was seated at his workspace,” Liss-Jackson said in her deposition. As it turned out, Liss-Jackson was in the governor’s line of sight when he got up and walked into her office. (Liss-Jackson was initially an unnamed source in the Gothamist-WNYC piece but later authorized the publication to attach her name to the comments.)

A rep for Gothamist-WNYC told the Erik Wemple Blog that the outlet is “looking into” this matter.

At the time Liss-Jackson spoke about her experience in Albany years earlier, two women had publicly accused the governor of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the top Democrat in the state Senate, warned on March 4, 2021, that she would call for Cuomo to resign if another accuser came forward. Two days later, the Wall Street Journal inventoried Liss-Jackson’s concerns in a story headlined, “Cuomo Faces New Accusations of Inappropriate Behavior From Third Former Aide.” According to the story, Liss-Jackson said the governor had “asked her if she had a boyfriend, called her sweetheart, touched her on her lower back at a reception and once kissed her hand when she rose from her desk.” It also reported that Liss-Jackson’s experience in the governor’s office “prompted her to begin mental-health counseling in 2014.”

The day after the Journal story was published, Stewart-Cousins asked for Cuomo’s resignation.

In her deposition, Liss-Jackson expressed dismay with the Journal’s article, saying she felt “got.” She saw herself as contributing “to a larger narrative about a workplace environment that I didn’t feel was appropriate or safe,” she testified. The Journal headline, however, positioned her as another accuser. “I was like, ‘F[—],’ you know, excuse my French. Now everybody’s going to think that I’m some snowflake millennial whistleblower who thinks that the Governor touched me on the small of my back and that therefore he’s a bad person. And that’s not what I was trying to do,” Liss-Jackson testified. The way the Journal presented her situation, she argued, “it felt like I was just thrown into this group of women who said the Governor sexually harassed me and I wanted to be clear that the Governor didn’t sexually harass me.” (Liss-Jackson’s attorney told us that Liss-Jackson “never” — their emphasis — alleged that Cuomo sexually harassed her; the report from the state attorney general’s office concluded that he had.)

A tweet from Liss-Jackson at the time, however, appeared to applaud the Journal’s work: “I shared my story because I believe it may help bolster those shared by other women,” it reads in part.

The newspaper said in a statement: “The Wall Street Journal stands by its story, which was reported meticulously and with great care given the sensitive subject matter.” In fairness, the Journal did contrast Liss-Jackson’s claims with those of the other women, though the treatment was understated: “Ms. Liss is the third former female aide to accuse Mr. Cuomo of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. The two other former aides have said he sexually harassed them,” reads the story.

A New York magazine feature by Rebecca Traister, also published in March 2021, used extensive quotes from Liss-Jackson to document the governor’s “toxic workplace.” The source was pleased: “That was a good story … it’s an accurate characterization of what I was trying to convey,” Liss-Jackson said in her deposition. Among Liss-Jackson’s quotes in the Traister piece: “I was taught that it was totally fine to lie. Even as a peon, I was part of some of the lies and mischaracterization.”

So did anyone ask Liss-Jackson to lie as part of her job? “No, no, no,” she protested in her deposition. What she meant by “lie,” Liss-Jackson explained, was that the government played games in news releases announcing new initiatives and the like. “You have to sometimes rebrand something that already exists, and then make an announcement about it as though it’s something entirely new. And that’s what I was getting at,” she said. New York magazine said it was “very happy to let the story continue to speak for itself.”

The riptide of media reports and official probes that cut short Cuomo’s third gubernatorial term in August 2021 was a political cataclysm. Though Cuomo had weathered other fiascoes, the sexual harassment scandal essentially swept him out of office in nine months. Yet, the investigative work behind the defenestration was selective: Amplify all evidence that Cuomo was a serial sexual harasser; skip past complicating considerations. In January 2022, the Erik Wemple Blog noted that media organizations and the attorney general’s office exhibited no curiosity about a lawsuit bearing on the credibility of Cuomo’s second accuser.

Those considerations by no means minimize Cuomo’s chronically inappropriate behavior, which includes peripatetic touching and indulgence in creepy banter. Nor does it forgive him for presiding over a toxic workplace. But the depiction of the former governor as a guy running around cupping a woman’s breast and proposing a game of strip poker on a plane has buckled under scrutiny. For Team Cuomo, defending themselves against the civil suits at least affords the chance to push back on what it views as a misguided and unethical attorney general investigation, as well as lopsided media coverage. All five criminal investigations into Cuomo’s conduct fizzled.

Liss-Jackson’s deposition provides a snapshot of the media’s prosecutorial tilt. “This confirms exactly what we maintained from day one: in the rush to be first and next, basic vetting, verifying, fact checking and common sense were cast aside,” Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said in a statement.

A broader lesson for journalists also emerges from the Liss-Jackson deposition transcript: Just because someone says something on the record doesn’t mean it’s ironclad. “What do you mean by that?” and “How do you know that?” are questions that sources should have to answer over and over again.

Donald Rehkopf, Liss-Jackson’s attorney, filed a letter with the court in the “Trooper 1” case objecting to the release of his client’s transcript to “a reporter for the Washington Post.” He also said that Liss-Jackson would have no comment on our inquiry.

She appeared, however, to enjoy her run as a source on the Cuomo scandal. “I was exaggerating,” Liss-Jackson confessed in her deposition after failing to support a comment to Traister about how “there was nobody that was unattractive” in the governor’s executive chamber. She also told Traister that getting a look from Cuomo was like the “scene in ‘Jurassic Park’ when the Tyrannosaurus rex peeks into the car.” Asked about that comment in her deposition, Liss-Jackson said, “I think it was certainly a nice quote to weave into the article for a journalist.”

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