November 29, 2021

Oh great. After nearly two years of living under the ominous cloud of COVID-19, and just as we all thought we might have a chance at a somewhat normal and healthy holiday season, we are introduced to an ominous new word:


It’s a newly detected variant of the coronavirus. Along with it come a slew of gloomy questions:

Is it more transmissible? Does it cause more severe illness? More deaths? Can it avoid vaccines?

And, perhaps the most depressing question of all: Does this mean we are back to square one when it comes to COVID-19?

The answer to all those questions appears to be frustratingly unsatisfactory: It’s too early to tell.

But it’s the absolutely right answer because it’s a cold hard fact. We don’t know because we don’t know.

There are hopeful early signs that the new variant causes only mild illness. But medical experts agree that we simply don’t have enough information to make any solid conclusions.

If you’re a news consumer, the coverage — for the most part — has been comprehensive and responsible. As CNN “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter said, “The best headlines right now say what we know and also what we don’t know since the important part is what we don’t know. You should be wary of anyone who claims otherwise.”

It should be pointed out, however, that Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, told Stelter that omicron should not be the lead story right now because “it’s a story based entirely on speculation.”

But on Sunday evening, stories about the variant led the websites for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and CNN. And the Sunday morning news shows quickly adjusted their schedules to make it the priority.

Let’s start with Chuck Todd’s excellent interview on “Meet the Press” with Dr. Anthony Fauci. Todd asked the kinds of questions that all of us want to know, starting with, “Are we in for a bleak winter?” And Fauci’s answer wasn’t necessarily hopeful. He repeated what he has been saying for months and that is it all depends on how Americans behave, most notably if those who are unvaccinated get vaccinated and for those who are vaccinated to get boosted.

“This is a clarion call as far as I’m concerned of saying let’s put aside all of these differences that we have (and get vaccinated),” said Fauci, who was quick and effusive in his praise of the South Africans for their transparency and warning about the new variant.

Fauci reiterated that we still don’t know enough, but hope to learn more valuable information in the coming days. But Todd asked a really smart question: What if you already got your booster? Should those who haven’t wait in the event that the booster shots will have to be tweaked to combat this new variant?

Fauci was emphatic. Get your booster as soon as possible. “Don’t try to play mind games,” Fauci said. “The one thing we know that’s really good news is that when you get boosted, the level of your antibody goes way, way above what the level of its peak was after the second dose. So the booster not only gets you back up to where you were, it gets you way, way, way up and that’s the reason why we feel even with variants like omicron that if you get boosted, you’re going to get a level of antibody that is high enough that it’s likely to be able to get at least some degree and maybe a lot of protection against this.”

In an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said vaccines “most likely” will be effective, but also warned that it’s too soon to know for sure. He also encouraged everyone to get fully vaccinated.

Collins also told CNN “State of the Union” host Dana Bash, “There’s no reason to panic. But it is a great reason to go get boosted.”

Meanwhile, CBS’s “Face the Nation” went to their go-to expert on COVID-19: Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who has been a valuable voice throughout the pandemic. Gottlieb told moderator Margaret Brennan that he believes the omicron variant is “almost definitely” already in the United States.

Based on early anecdotal evidence, Gottlieb seems hopeful, particularly for those who are vaccinated. He told Brennan, “The question here is going to be whether or not a fully boosted individual is someone who’s had three doses of vaccine has good protection against this variant. And right now, if you talk to people in vaccine circles, people who are working on a vaccine, they have a pretty good degree of confidence that a booster vaccine — so three full doses of vaccine — is going to be fairly protective against this new variant.”

Gottlieb, however, did reiterate that it’s still early and that we’ll learn more in the coming days and weeks.

The point of all this is the media’s coverage, at least from what I’ve absorbed over the past few days, has done what it is supposed to do: it has turned to experts who have been quick to relay what we know and, most importantly, what we don’t know.

When it comes to this story, unfortunately but wisely, we go to a TV cliche: stay tuned.

Fauci’s in-depth interview

Dr. Anthony Fauci being interviewed by CBS “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan. (Courtesy: CBS News)

Even before news of the new omicron variant broke, CBS’s “Face the Nation” had planned an extensive taped interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, looking back over the past two years and some of the more notable moments of the pandemic, as well as what the future might hold. The online version of the interview runs for more than an hour.

Margaret Brennan asked Fauci about the current state of COVID-19, how often we might need to get boosters for protection, the current tracking of COVID-19, the latest with kids and school, vaccinating babies, past mistakes regarding COVID-19, mask-wearing and more extremely valuable information.

Brennan also reminded Fauci of a quote he gave in 2019 when he was asked what keeps him up at night. At the time, Fauci said, “The thing I’m most concerned about is the emergence of a new virus, the body doesn’t have any background experience with very transmissible, highly transmissible person to person, high degree of morbidity and mortality. The thing that worries most of us in the field of public health is a respiratory illness that can spread even before someone is so sick that you want to keep them in bed.”

Fauci was describing COVID-19.

“I was,” Fauci told Brennan. “My worst nightmare is something that you’ve just described, and unfortunately, it’s happened.”

Fauci also went into detail about the politicization of COVID-19, and told Brennan that he never considered quitting. Fauci laughed when Brennan asked him about Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Cruz’s assertion that Fauci should be prosecuted.

But Fauci still fired back, telling Brennan, “I have to laugh at that. I should be prosecuted? What happened on Jan. 6, senator?”

We’ve heard a lot from Fauci over the past two years, but this interview is as thorough as there has been in quite some time. It’s worth a watch.

Also worth reading …

Here are a few other omicron stories you should check out:

Finally, my colleague Al Tompkins explains how omicron is different from other variants and why journalists should be especially careful not to overstate the dangers of this variant with so little evidence in hand.


Early- and mid-career journalists, apply by Dec. 10 for $10,000 reporting fellowship

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Black and missing

When Gabby Petito — a 22-year-old white woman — went missing and later was found to be dead earlier this year, the media’s coverage was exhaustive and intense. But it amplified another issue. As NPR TV critic Eric Deggans wrote, “… missing women of color often get media coverage only when people notice how much attention everyone is paying to the white women.”

Deggans wrote that in his piece reviewing a new four-part documentary series on HBO called “Black and Missing.” The series centers on the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. — a nonprofit in Maryland that searches for missing people of color when they are marginalized by police and national media. The foundation was founded by sisters-in-law Derrica Wilson, a former police officer, and Natalie Wilson, a public relations expert.

Deggans writes, “The docuseries also does a good job of explaining how well-established dynamics in race, society and policing often impede efforts to gain attention for non-white people who go missing. Of course, there’s an exploration of ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ — a phrase credited to departed PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, who described the media feeding frenzy when attractive, middle class-looking white women suddenly disappear. But the series also examines how police and society may assume that it isn’t so unusual for Black people to meet with foul play, so it isn’t defined as ‘news’ or seen as an important emergency when such a thing happens. Or how police may prematurely end investigations by assuming a missing person of color has run away, at a time when every moment of effort counts.”

The series is co-produced by journalist Soledad O’Brien, who told Deggans, “Newsrooms have these concepts about what will sell (white viewers) and what won’t. And so many of those concepts are just (expletive). If they decided, starting next week, that these stories are important, media outlets could begin covering them right away.”

Check out Deggans’ story for tips that O’Brien gives media outlets about covering such stories.

Lee rebuffs Alden bid

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

Lee Enterprises has wasted no time in pushing back on hedge fund Alden Global Capital’s bid to take over the company. On Thanksgiving eve, the board of the publicly traded chain of 77 dailies put in place a shareholders rights plan.

The so-called “poison pill” defense, which will be in effect for a year, is meant to block Alden from buying more than 10% of the company. That would trigger an opportunity for other shareholders to buy shares at a 50% discount.

Alden, notorious for making deep cost cuts at its properties, earlier this year bought Tribune Publishing and in 2019 unsuccessfully attempted a takeover of Gannett.

Legal maneuvers may follow, and Alden could also up its offer, made a week ago, of $24 a share. Lee shares closed Friday at $24.34 suggesting that the market thinks one way or another the deal will happen.

Horrible news

Kevin Nishita — a security guard for KRON4, a TV station in San Francisco — has died after being shot in the abdomen during a robbery attempt. Nishita was serving as security for a news crew covering a story in downtown Oakland last Wednesday when he was shot by someone trying to steal the crew’s equipment. Nishita, a former police officer, died on Sunday.

The person who shot him has not been captured and remains unidentified. Oakland Police put out a tweet that includes a photo of a car they believe was used in the attempted robbery and shooting.

KRON4’s Liz Jassin wrote, “Local television stations, including KRON4, regularly use security guards when covering news stories, and Kevin Nishita honorably and bravely protected Bay Area TV reporters for years.”

In a statement, KRON4’s vice president and general manager Jim Rose said, “We are devastated by the loss of security guard and our friend, Kevin Nishita. Our deepest sympathy goes to Kevin’s wife, his children, his family, and to all his friends and colleagues. This senseless loss of life is due to yet another violent criminal act in the Bay Area. We hope that offering a reward will help lead to the arrest of those responsible so they can face justice for this terrible tragedy.”

A reward of $32,500 is being offered for information that leads to an arrest.

Remembering a legend

Stephen Sondheim in 2018. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

The legendary Stephen Sondheim — composer, lyricist and one of the most important figures in American musical theater history — died last week at the age of 91. The tributes and remembrances were superb, so I thought I would pass along a few that you might enjoy:

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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