By:
April 6, 2020

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Get ready for the worst week yet

Hunker down, everyone. We’re in for a rough week.

“The next week is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment. It’s going to be our 9/11 moment. It’s going to be the hardest moment for many Americans in their entire lives.”

Those were the chilling words from the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams during his appearance Sunday morning on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “This is going to be a bad week. … It’s going to be shocking to some.”

There is a light ever so slight at the end of the tunnel, as Fauci said he is hopeful that, in perhaps a week or slightly longer, we’ll start to see a flattening out of the curve. That’s because of the mitigation efforts, including social distancing, which Fauci said MUST continue.

But even that slight optimism is tamped down by the uncertainty of the unknown. Fauci told “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan, “I will not say we have it under control, Margaret. That would be a false statement. We are struggling to get it under control.”

There appears to be a struggle now because of mistakes made in the past. Which means any mistakes made right now could hurt the future. And that makes the media’s role all the more critical right now: to hold the powerful to account, while being sure to produce the most reliable information based on facts and science.

So that’s where I’ll start with today’s newsletter — looking at how we got here and the media’s role in this crisis.

Looking back

In a damning piece that lays much of the blame for this pandemic on the White House, The Washington Post’s Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller chronicle 70 days of denial, delay and dysfunction from the Trump administration.

“The United States will likely go down as the country that was supposedly best prepared to fight a pandemic,” they wrote, “but ended up catastrophically overmatched by the novel coronavirus, sustaining heavier casualties than any other nation.”

In this eye-opening and detailed piece, The Post reports that President Donald Trump and his administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of coronavirus in China on Jan. 3.

“And yet,” the Post writes, “it took 70 days from that initial notification for Trump to treat the coronavirus not as a distant threat or harmless flu strain well under control, but as a lethal force that had outflanked America’s defenses and was poised to kill tens of thousands of citizens. That more-than-two-month stretch now stands as critical time that was squandered.”

The Post notes several reasons for a major breakdown, including some of the coverage on Fox News. Which leads me to today’s next item …

Media malpractice

Fox News’ Sean Hannity. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

One of the most viral videos on the internet right now — with more than 2.3 million views on YouTube alone — is “The Daily Show’s” video showing three minutes of clips from Fox News on-air personalities and commentators dismissing or downplaying the threat of coronavirus. The clips include Sean Hannity, Pete Hegseth, Lou Dobbs, Tomi Lahren, Jeanine Pirro, Dr. Marc Siegel, Geraldo Rivera, Laura Ingraham, Jesse Watters, Matt Schlapp, Dr. Drew Pinsky and Ainsley Earhardt.

Detractors argue that some of the clips are taken out of context, but there’s no denying many of the things were, indeed, said on the air. Watch the video yourself to see the number of ridiculous comments that would be hilarious if not for the seriousness of the situation.

As an example, Lahren said she would be more concerned stepping on a heroin needle than getting the coronavirus and, in perhaps the most irresponsible statement of all, Watters said on March 3, just a month ago, “I’m not afraid of the coronavirus and no one else should be that afraid either.” (That’s not the only thing Watters was wrong about, as Poynter’s PolitFact shows here.)

Why are comments like these so dangerous? Fox News has a powerful voice. It is the most-watched cable news network in the country. Millions of people heard those statements. And, just watching Trump’s Twitter feed and White House press conference statements, you can see his attitudes often echo what is said on Fox News.

“We talk about the failure of President Trump’s administration to take the coronavirus seriously. You have to seriously wonder whether that stemmed from the coverage that he was consuming on Fox News,” CNN senior media writer Oliver Darcy said during an appearance on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” “We know the president watches a lot of Fox, he reacts to Fox and we know he makes a lot of decisions based on what he is seeing on Fox.”

And there’s no question, despite the revisionist history being pushed out now by Fox News, that the network downplayed the coronavirus as a hoax or media-driven narrative out to make Trump look bad during the critical months of January, February and early March when, we now know, his administration’s reaction was much too slow. Darcy fairly asks that if Fox News had taken this more seriously, would Trump have?

“We really need to focus our efforts on fact-checking powerful people and holding them accountable, people like Sean Hannity and Fox News,” Darcy said. “And, also, what about Hannity’s bosses? Suzanne Scott is the CEO of Fox News media. Is she not watching Hannity’s show and seeing this misinformation? Does she not care about the misinformation? Or is it that she can’t control what Hannity is saying on the air?”

Over the next few weeks, months and even years, we will look back at the mistakes made by everyone. That scrutiny also should include the media, starting with Fox News.

A good moment for Fox News

Not every second of every minute of air time on Fox News unabashedly supports Trump and the right-wing agenda. Case in point was when “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace pushed back against U.S. Surgeon General Adams.

One of the big questions at the moment is why nine states have yet to issue stay-at-home orders. If they are not going to, why doesn’t President Trump step in and make it mandatory for the nation? After showing a clip in which Trump said he would leave it up to the individual states, Wallace asked Adams, “The coronavirus is not a state issue, it doesn’t follow or respect state borders. Dr. Fauci says he believes there should be a national stay-at-home order. Is he wrong?”

Adams, who believes all Americans should stay at home and is asking ALL governors to at least try it for a week, tried to explain why states are different and then made a poor analogy about different state laws regarding opioids and tobacco, adding, “More people will die even in the worst projections from cigarette smoking in this country than are going to die from coronavirus this year.”

Wallace called out Adams by saying, “There’s a big difference between opioids and cigarettes, which are something that people decide to use or not to use, and the coronavirus, which people catch. It’s not an individual choice. And you know, when President Trump says that he is a wartime president, during World War II, FDR didn’t say, ‘Well, it’s up to each state to decide what to do.’ He mobilized the nation.”

A strong editorial

President Donald Trump departs after speaking at a coronavirus task force briefing on Saturday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The debate rages on about whether or not networks should air President Trump’s White House coronavirus task force press conferences. That debate flamed up again Saturday after Trump touted an unproven coronavirus drug. My thoughts on this topic are well documented — I believe the major networks (and their affiliates) should show the press conferences unless they conflict with regularly-scheduled local or national news broadcasts.

One idea to limit Trump’s disinformation is for reporters in the news conferences to direct most of their questions toward the medical experts, instead of Trump, during the Q&A portion when the president tends to go rogue. Then again, we can’t demand the media hold Trump accountable for his words and actions and then not ask him questions, or not air his responses. As I’ve argued, not airing his responses could actually protect Trump.

However, many media observers believe the media is being irresponsible by airing Trump’s news conferences because he might put out false and even dangerous information. Even before his remarks Saturday about the unproven drug, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board called for networks to stop carrying Trump’s briefings live.

“The networks keep airing these tantrum-filled briefings because Trump’s buffoonery is ratings gold,” the editorial board wrote. “But the public should not confuse this with news. In fact, it’s the opposite of news because the information Trump dispenses is filled with misinformation. Airing it live, knowing Trump’s record for dishonesty, is professionally irresponsible. He is using this free air time to substitute for the campaign rallies he cannot attend in a time of social distancing. It’s up to the networks to deny him the live, unfiltered coverage he clearly desires but no longer deserves.”

Behind the scenes

What’s it like to cover the White House press conferences? In a piece for NBCNews.com, White House correspondent Shannon Pettypiece writes about the “strange new reality” of covering the White House. That includes getting your temperature taken, sitting far from other reporters and obsessive hand washing and wiping down surfaces.

There’s a media workroom right next to the briefing room where White House reporters typically spend 12-14 hours a day. Long days in that room, reporting on stories, can almost make things seem normal again.

“But,” Pettypiece wrote, “as a man wearing a mask rode past me on his bike on Pennsylvania Avenue and I embarked on a 30-minute walk home to avoid taking the bus, I quickly returned to my new reality.”

Most powerful interview

If you missed it, I encourage you to check out the powerful interview CNN’s Erin Burnett did Friday with the wife of a 42-year-old man who died from the coronavirus. Listening to guest Maura Lewinger talking about her final moments with her husband, Burnett broke down and started crying — and who could blame her? Typically, you don’t see something like that during an interview, but these are not typical times.

An unconventional convention

When will the coronavirus crisis calm down enough for Americans to be able to gather again? That is unknown. And because of that, the political conventions slated for this summer could be in jeopardy, at least in the form that we’re accustomed to.

In an exclusive interview with ABC “This Week” anchor George Stephanopoulos, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden said, “Well, we’re going to have to do a convention. We may have to do a virtual convention. I think we should be thinking about that right now.”

Showing leadership

How can leaders make a positive impact with all the challenges created by COVID-19? It’s all about communication. Check out critical insights in a free webinar Tuesday from the Global Mentor Network.

San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper and my colleague Kelly McBride — Poynter’s Senior vice president and the Craig Newmark Journalism Ethics Chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter — will lend their expertise on leadership, community-building and connectedness at this critical time. Thuy Vu, president of the Global Mentor Network, will moderate. The webinar will be Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern (10:30 a.m. Pacific). Go to this link to sign up.

By the way, last week in The Poynter Report, I reached to several of the top newspaper editors in the country about the key to covering coronavirus. Cooper provided the most interesting answer. She told me the Chronicle has been practicing to produce a paper while the entire newsroom was working remotely for years. The thought was the Chronicle might someday face a devastating earthquake, but that preparation has been useful for producing marvelous journalism during the coronavirus coverage.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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