March 25, 2020

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No accountability. No clarity. Few specifics.

After what had become a daily routine of White House press conferences, President Donald Trump and his coronavirus task force did something different Tuesday — they held a virtual town hall at the Rose Garden on the White House grounds.

The idea — interview-style questions from mostly one journalist, as well as (very few) TV viewers — seemed promising. And it would have worked had it not been for one thing.

Fox News.

Mostly because of the incompetence and softball approach from host Bill Hemmer, the two-hour town hall produced little in the way of accountability, clarity and specifics. Once again, Trump’s message to the American people felt more like the substitute for one of his rallies than a Q&A to inform them about one of the worst crises we have ever seen.

Oh, there was news, the biggest being that President Trump wants the country “opened up and raring to go” by Easter — which is less than three weeks from now. How that’s going to happen isn’t known because Hemmer never bothered to push the president on exactly how he’s squaring that timeline with grim projections that the coronavirus crisis still hasn’t peaked in the U.S.

Hemmer particularly dropped the ball when Trump repeatedly compared the coronavirus to the flu when it has been proven that COVID-19 has a much higher mortality rate.

Look, let’s not kid ourselves. Trump agreed to a town hall with Fox News because Fox News is the network most sympathetic to and supportive of his cause. To argue otherwise is just naive. No one expected Hemmer to hold Trump’s feet to the fire.

But to let Trump ramble, evade questions, criticize others and make promises without pushing back with pertinent follow-ups made Hemmer look less like a journalist and more like an accomplice.

There were a few moments when it appeared Hemmer was going to go for a tough question. But he ultimately refused to pin Trump down on critical claims, such as when the president criticized New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for, supposedly, refusing to buy 16,000 ventilators in 2015. At another point, Hemmer smartly asked Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, if Trump’s goal of opening the country by Easter was possible. Birx, sitting just two seats from Trump, deftly sidestepped the question. Instead of following up to get an answer, Hemmer merely moved onto the next topic.

Certainly, Hemmer’s job wasn’t easy. But this moment was too big to back down or play politics. This called for a journalist willing to ask some hard questions, even at the risk of Trump getting upset. The Fox News host simply wasn’t up to the task.

Hemmer ended the broadcast with “I hope the last two hours held some value for a lot of our viewers across the country and the world.”

It did not.

After the town hall

Hemmer performed no better in a brief one-on-one interview with the president after the town hall. He tried to get Trump to talk about Trump’s optimism about opening up the country versus the reality of medical facts and projections, but he allowed Trump to go on a tangent and avoid the question. Like with the town hall, Hemmer asked no follow-ups and failed to get Trump to answer that or any other pertinent questions.

How about another one?

David Muir, anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight.” (ABC News)

I doubt this would ever happen, but Trump should hold a town hall with another network in the very near future. No one is suggesting he sit down with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or CNN’s Don Lemon, but how about NBC’s Lester Holt? Or ABC’s David Muir? Or CBS’s Margaret Brennan? Or PBS’s Judy Woodruff?

All are fair journalists. They would be respectful, and yet they would ask the kinds of questions (and follow-ups) that we did not see during Tuesday’s town hall.

More journalism troubles

The effects of the coronavirus are taking a heavy toll on newspapers. With businesses everywhere suffering or closing, at least temporarily, papers have seen significant drops in advertising revenue. According to the International News Media Association, ad revenue for newspapers has dropped 20 to 30% in the past two weeks compared to a year ago.

The latest impacts can be seen in San Diego, Madison (Wisconsin) and Pittsburgh.

San Diego Magazine, which had 37 employees, is shutting down after 72 years. It’s unclear whether the move will be permanent. Publisher Jim Fitzpatrick told the Voice of San Diego, “San Diego Magazine is a 72-year-old brand and I will not let it die. This is hopefully a short pause.”

An alt-weekly in Madison, the Isthmus, is shutting down after 44 years. In a note to readers, the Isthmus said they were “heartbroken to share this news.” The note said the Isthmus hopes to return after the coronavirus passes, writing, “We are going to take this time to try to figure out what is next and what Isthmus might look like in the next life. Until we meet again.”

In Pittsburgh, Trib Total Media has combined two suburban print editions to confront “serious losses during the coronavirus pandemic.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Joyce Gannon reported that Trib Total Media also has laid off an unknown number of journalists.

Sadly, this isn’t going to be the last of this kind of news. Expect more alt-weeklies to shutter, at least for now, and for local newspapers to take drastic measures like slashing staff and eliminating the number of days they are printed.

The ratings game

Millions of Americans are spending more time indoors, forced there by concerns about catching and spreading the coronavirus. They also appear to be craving news. Television viewership for news programs is way up across all networks.

For the third week in a row, ABC’s “World News Tonight” was the top program in the county, airing the top two telecasts of the week in all of broadcast and cable TV. Again, to be clear, it wasn’t just the most-watched news broadcast, but the most-watched program on television for the week. Monday’s broadcast had 12.879 million total viewers and Thursday’s had 12.824 million. For the week, it averaged 12.545 million viewers.

That was only slightly more than “NBC Nightly News,” which drew in 12.006 million. In addition, “NBC Nightly News” was top in the key demo of adults 25-54, with 3.262 million. That also made it the most-watched program of any kind in that demo. In fact, “NBC Nightly News” had five of the six most-watched shows among adults 25-54. (Fox’s “The Masked Singer” was No. 2.)

Meanwhile, CBS’s “60 Minutes” reached 10.90 million viewers, its largest audience since Dec. 8, 2019.

Also at CBS, last Sunday’s “Face the Nation” was the top Sunday morning news show, with 5.14 million viewers, marking the best audience in 28 years — since Feb. 24, 1991. That show featured Margaret Brennan’s interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci.

And one more big number from CBS. The venerable “CBS Sunday Morning” had its largest audience since 1994, with 6.82 million viewers.

But it also was a good Sunday for NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Its 4.848 million total viewers were the most since Dec. 7, 2008. It also was top in the 25-54 demo, with 1.366 million viewers. ABC’s “This Week” had a solid 4.244 million viewers.

And, finally, during primetime, Fox News had another huge week, leading all cable news networks with a total day viewership of 2.5 million, which beat its own record from the 2018 midterm election. Its primetime numbers also were the best among cable news networks. Fox News had 4 million primetime viewers. MSNBC had 2.436 million and CNN had 2.099 million.

Writing China

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Publishers from The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, together, released a statement Tuesday pushing back against the Chinese government’s barring of American journalists from those publications. The statement — signed by the Times’ A.G. Sulzberger, the Post’s Fred Ryan and the Journal’s William Lewis — said:

“We strongly urge the Chinese government to reverse its decision to force the Americans working for our news organizations to leave the country and, more broadly, to ease the growing crackdown on independent news organizations that preceded this action. The media is collateral damage in a diplomatic dispute between the Chinese and U.S. governments, threatening to deprive the world of critical information at a perilous moment.”

China’s ouster of the journalists is part of a diplomatic feud between China and the U.S. Prior to the ouster of journalists from the three publications, China kicked three Wall Street Journal reporters out of the country over a headline on an opinion column (“China Is The Real Sick Man of Asia”) that criticized China’s response to coronavirus. In addition, the U.S. put a limit of 100 on the number of Chinese citizens who can work in the U.S. for China’s five state-run media outlets.

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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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