By:
October 5, 2020

So let’s review.

On Thursday night, President Donald Trump phoned into Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News and said he had taken a COVID-19 test and felt fine. A couple of hours later, he tweeted that he had tested positive. By Friday evening, he was admitted to the hospital. By Saturday morning, the medical team treating him painted a rosy picture of Trump’s health, while Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was leaking to reporters that the president’s condition deteriorated so rapidly that it was a major cause for concern, adding “we’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.” Then, by Sunday morning, the medical team said Trump could be discharged from the hospital as early as today. Sunday evening, Trump said hello to supporters through the window of an SUV and then returned to the hospital.

When you add it up, this all happened in less than 72 hours. And when you add it all up, something doesn’t, well, add up.

Once again, mixed messages and the feeling that there’s a total lack of transparency coming from the Trump administration has left us wondering what, if anything, is true.

Much of the blame can be directed towards statements made by Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley, the head of the Trump medical team whose initial press conference on Saturday was full of misleading answers and evasive statements. He even admitted in Sunday’s press conference that he wasn’t exactly forthcoming the day before when asked if the president had been on supplemental oxygen.

“I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude of the team, that the president, that his course of illness has had,” Conley said. “(I) didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, came off like we’re trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true. The fact of the matter is that he’s doing really well.”

Almost everything about that quote is flabbergasting and infuriating. But it’s also not unreasonable to suggest that Conley’s optimistic attitude was at the direction of Trump, who reportedly was furious with Meadows for contradicting the medical team on Saturday.

Even Conley’s press conference on Sunday — again full of half-statements, non-denial denials and double-talk — left more questions than answers. For instance, when asked what X-rays and CT scans of Trump’s lungs showed, Conley said there were “expected findings.” Expected findings? What does that mean?

When asked if Trump’s oxygen levels had dropped below 90%, Conley said, “it wasn’t in the low 80s or anything like that.” Again, Conley didn’t really answer the question.

CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, on air after Conley’s Sunday press update, said, “If you’re going (to provide updates) then you’re going to have to be absolutely honest. It wasn’t just sort of conveying an upbeat attitude, he was purposefully misleading (Saturday) about a very basic issue, which was whether or not the president had been on supplemental oxygen.”

Gupta added that he wasn’t questioning the credentials and abilities of the doctors in charge of Trump’s care, but that “we have to sort of read between the lines here” when it comes to deciphering the information coming out of the press briefings.

“They are telegraphing concerns here and the next few days are going to be critical for him,” Gupta said. “He’s in the right place, he’s got great doctors, but this is a significant issue they’re dealing with.”

CNN’s Jake Tapper made an excellent point: Perhaps Conley and the medical team are telegraphing concerns to brilliant medical minds such as Gupta, but not to lay people (that’s most Americans) who don’t know the purpose of certain medications and which symptoms truly are life-threatening.

Honestly, it’s hard to know what to believe.

So where do we turn for information?

NBC’s Kate Snow interviewing Dr. John Torres on Sunday. (Courtesy: NBC News)

Well, medical experts such as Gupta are a good place to start. Such experts can take what information is coming out and relate what it means. These moments, when news outlets are turning to their medical correspondents, are when the coverage is at its best.

For example, during a special NBC report on Sunday, NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres said, “The fact that he got the steroid, the fact that he got the dexamethasone, again, sends up a bit of a red flag that there is something going on here. He is a little worse off than what we’re hearing because I think they might be painting a bit of a rosy picture for everybody. To me, out of everything that Dr. Conley and the other doctor said, that is the most concerning part.”

These are the kinds of tidbits that help put everything a bit more into perspective, especially if we are not going to get the straight dope from official spokespeople. Instead of looking closely at videos of the president speaking or riding in cars and trying to figure out how well or sick he is, we should lean into the reporting and the analysis of medical experts who know what they’re talking about.

The other sources to trust: the reliable White House reporters who have sources in the administration and who are getting the real story. Reporters such as Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker of The New York Times, a variety of reporters at The Washington Post, including Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim, and network correspondents such as CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, ABC’s Jonathan Karl, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, CBS’s Weijia Jiang, PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, as well as the Associated Press’ Jonathan Lemire and many, many more are plugged in and have been more reliable than anyone speaking on behalf of the president, most particularly Conley and his medical team.

Best perspective

I found this quote from CNN White House reporter Kaitlan Collins to put everything into excellent perspective: “Obviously giving information about the president’s condition is not going to affect how that condition turns out. And talking about his attitude is nowhere the same as talking about his vitals, which is what people actually want to know about the president of the United States. Though the doctor is in a tough position because he is meeting with the president right before he comes out to do these briefings and we’ve been told the president has been extremely critical of people speaking on his behalf. He’s frustrated that he, himself, cannot address the media.”

The tone of the coverage

As you would expect, there are noticeable differences in the tone of the Trump coronavirus coverage on the cable networks. And, yes, I’m talking about what kind of coverage we’re seeing on Fox News and what we’re seeing on CNN and MSNBC. The Fox News coverage has tended to be a tad optimistic. The CNN/MSNBC coverage has leaned toward more skepticism about the information we are getting.

Does that have anything to do with how some — not all, but some — on-air personalities feel about Trump, either in a positive or negative way? We would be naive to believe that isn’t playing a role in some of the coverage. There are some cable news hosts who want to see Trump reelected and others who want to see him defeated by Joe Biden. It’s hard to see how those personal feelings can be totally kept out of their commentary.

Now, perhaps that skepticism comes from a dislike of the president. And some of it comes from the fact that this administration has a history of lying and misleading the public. Regardless, that doesn’t make the skepticism wrong. There is so much unknown and so much at stake that pushing for clarity and facts is the responsible thing for good journalists to do.

At the same time, there is another aspect to this story that goes beyond the president’s health and that’s how this all could impact those who have not taken the coronavirus seriously. Let’s face it, we’re talking about many Trump supporters who aren’t as vigilant as they need to be when it comes to the coronavirus. Some news coverage showing the seriousness of this virus has been aimed at those people and that, too, is an aspect of this story worth pursuing.

Pushing back

Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump at last Tuesday’s presidential debate. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)

“Fox News Sunday” moderator Chris Wallace got into it with Trump campaign advisor Steve Cortes. First, Cortes criticized Wallace for not being a neutral moderator in last Tuesday’s debate. Cortes said, “He had to debate not just Joe Biden, but you as well.”

Wallace then criticized the Trump people for not wearing masks and practicing social distancing at the debate.

“They weren’t distanced and there were rules, and there was no freedom of choice,” Wallace said. “They broke the rules.”

Wallace would know. He was there.

SPONSORED POST:

A Trint Webinar: Join Trint’s CEO & Founder Jeff Kofman (Emmy award-winning reporter and correspondent) and a panel of experts to learn how tech can enable journalists during the 2020 election. Join us at noon (EST) on October 13.

Cuomo’s firsthand experience leads to a fair point

As far as the varying coverage, CNN’s Chris Cuomo made a fair point on Saturday, saying he really did wish President Trump well.

“This is not about politics,” Cuomo said. “I have had this virus. I do not wish it on anybody. You can believe two things at the same time. It is sad that he has it — and shameful as well. It did not need to happen.”

Now there are some who might disagree with Cuomo, that now is the time to be more empathetic of Trump, and that now is not the time to make this a political issue. But then you see what Trump campaign senior advisor Jason Miller said during his appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” which showed it clearly is a political issue as well.

Regardless of your politics, it was frankly stunning to hear Miller said about Joe Biden and masks while Trump was in the hospital with COVID-19.

Miller told George Stephanopoulos that he takes COVID seriously and believes in masks, but added, “I’d say that with regard to Joe Biden, I think too often he’s used the mask as a prop. A mask is very important, but even if he’s — he could be 20, 30 feet away from the nearest person and still have the mask on. That’s not going to change anything that’s out there. But, also, we’ve seen with — with Joe Biden, I mean, we can’t all just stay in our basement for the rest of our lives. We have to get out there and live our lives and take this on, develop the vaccine, develop more therapeutics, and defeat it.”

Again, remarkable comments at a time while the president, who rarely has been seen in a mask, was in the hospital.

Live from New York, it’s all in on Trump

“Saturday Night Live” Weekend Update co-anchor Michael Che, seen here at the 2018 Emmy Awards. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

“Saturday Night Live” kicked off its 46th season Saturday night and all week we were teased with clips of Jim Carrey and Maya Rudolph getting made up to play Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The show figured to have a field day with last Tuesday’s debate. But when Trump was hospitalized Friday, you had to wonder if SNL would have to scrub making fun of him.

They did not.

The show had a cold open with Carrey, Rudolph and Alec Baldwin playing Trump in a parody of the debate with Baldwin’s Trump constantly interrupting everyone. It was mildly amusing, but not laugh-out-loud funny because it pretty much parrotted the actual debate — which was far from funny. A voice-over said the debate “was pretty fun to watch, as long as you don’t live in America.” Meanwhile, the “Weekend Update” segment didn’t hold back talking about Trump’s coronavirus.

Co-anchor Colin Jost said, “This news was a lot for us to process a day before we came back on the air after four months off. It’s been very weird to see all these people who clearly hate Trump come out and say, ‘We wish him well.’ I think a lot of them are just guilty that their first wish came true.”

Co-anchor Michael Che said, “OK, look, this is weird. Because a lot of people on both sides are saying there’s nothing funny about Trump being hospitalized with coronavirus. And those people are obviously wrong. There’s a lot funny about this. Maybe not from a moral standpoint. But mathematically, if you were constructing a joke, this has all the ingredients you need. The problem is, it’s almost too funny. Like, it’s so on the nose. It would be like if I were making fun of people who wear belts and my pants just immediately fell down.”

Later, Che added, “Is anyone surprised by this? I honestly thought Trump was trying to get coronavirus. I thought it was like ‘Groundhog Day’ when Bill Murray knew he couldn’t die and he was just trying anything. So all those maskless rallies Trump was having, that was him being safe? Look, I don’t want the president to die, obviously. Yeah, actually, I wish him a very lengthy recovery.”

Media tidbits

  • NBC News’ Lester Holt will anchor a town hall discussion with Joe Biden from Miami at 8 p.m. tonight on NBC. The one-hour special also will air on MSNBC, CNBC, NBC News NOW and will be available in Spanish on Telemundo’s digital platforms.
  • Speaking of Holt, he was supposed to kick off a weeklong series called “Across America” tonight. But that has been postponed to another week because the network is concentrating on Trump and his health.
  • The vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, for now, is expected to be held as planned on Wednesday. Axios’ Alexi McCammond and Alayna Treene are reporting that Harris might tone down her personal attacks on Trump, seeing as how he is ill. However, she still plans on talking about the pandemic. Harris has been practicing against Pete Buttigieg. Meanwhile, Pence has been prepping against Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Hot type

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

More resources for journalists

The Poynter Report is our daily media newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Donate
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…
More by Tom Jones

More News

Back to News