Monday was an uncommonly newsworthy day. Two major stories — both punctuating two of the biggest stories of the year — had news outlets juggling.
As the COVID-19 death toll in the United States passed 300,000, vaccinations to fight the virus got underway.
At the same time, the Electoral College officially formalized that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Most years, the Electoral College vote is an afterthought, a rubber stamp, nothing more than a formality. But it was not an afterthought this year, not after weeks of President Donald Trump falsely claiming the election was rigged and that it would be overturned.
And, oh, Bill Barr resigned as attorney general. So there were actually three big stories on Monday.
But let’s start with the truly most important and most impactful story of the day: the COVID-19 vaccine.
Seeing Americans vaccinated for the first time was a welcome and emotional sight. MSNBC’s Yasmin Vossoughian spoke with emergency room physician Dr. Christian Arbelaez moments after he received the coronavirus vaccine in Rhode Island. Arbelaez told Vossoughian, “It’s a moment to be thankful. I’m humbled and I think I represent all of the high-risk health workers who have put their lives on the line.”
It was a momentous and hopeful day for all Americans. Coverage stood out on the COVID-19 vaccine Monday when news outlets told their audiences what it all means.
The best explainer I saw Monday came from Dr. Tom Frieden on “MSNBC Live with Katy Tur.”
After going over the minimal side effects — such as perhaps a sore arm and, for some, a headache, body aches and a slight fever for a half-day or so — Frieden told Tur, “That’s an indication that the vaccine is working.”
Tur then smartly asked Frieden to confirm that when you get a shot, you’re not actually getting COVID-19.
“Think of it almost like an email sent to your immune system that shows a picture of what the virus looks like, and gives it instructions on how to kill the virus,” Frieden said. “And then, maybe like a Snapchat message, it disappears. That’s what the vaccine does. It’s amazing technology.”
This was outstanding, too: CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta talking about the “whiplash” of Monday — the optimism of a vaccine contrasted against surging numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Gupta stressed that it’s going to take some time for the vaccine to take effect.
Here’s the key part of what Gupta said: “Things that work more quickly, like masks, things that are maybe more boring to talk about could make a big impact now.”
Gupta pointed out how the U.S has the worst COVID-19 numbers in the world, but added, “It’s still an addressable problem even before the vaccine is distributed widely. We’ve got to remember that.”
Gupta also explained it’s still unknown if you can carry and transmit the virus even if you have had the vaccine.
All of this is the kind of important information that viewers needed to hear on a day like Monday.
When will we all get the vaccine?
That’s the question we all want to know, right? Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed that with MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson on Monday.
“I had been saying, by my calculations, sometime by the end of March, the beginning of April, that normal healthy man and woman in the street who has no underlying conditions would likely get it,” Fauci said. “At the end of the day, the real bottom line is: When do you get the overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated so that you can get that umbrella of herd immunity? And I believe if we’re efficient about it and we convince people to get vaccinated, we can accomplish that by the end of the second quarter of 2021.”
For fun, Jackson also asked Fauci what he thought of being portrayed by Kate McKinnon on this past weekend’s “Saturday Night Live.”
Fauci said, “Kate McKinnon is an amazing actor. She’s incredible. I was cracking up when I was watching that.”
Seeing the grim totals
Yes, Monday was a day of optimism in regards to COVID-19. But we are far from out of the woods, and things could get worse before they get better. The latest sobering number: 300,000. The United States has now reached 300,000 deaths.
On the “NBC Nightly News,” anchor Lester Holt said, “If I were to begin reading aloud all the names of those we’ve lost nonstop, it would be 10 days before I finished.”
How do you even comprehend such a number? Check out this latest piece from USA Today. Its graphics team imagined what it would be like to light a candle for every American death due to COVID-19, and put it on the ground one foot apart. Such an image would nearly cover the reflecting pool at the National Mall. So that’s what the USA Today graphic shows.
Biden officially the next president
It got kicked around. It got threatened. Its reputation was questioned. But in the end, the Electoral College worked.
That was the point made by CNN’s John King on Monday as Joe Biden was formally elected president by the Electoral College.
“The founders laid out this process,” King said. “It was laid for the days of the Pony Express. It was still useful in the days, maybe, of the Transcontinental Railroad. But it’s useful today to show the system is strong enough to withstand what had been unprecedented attacks this year from the sitting president of the United States.”
Despite the Electoral College confirming that Biden is the next president, CNN reported that many Capitol Hill Republicans still won’t go as far as to admit Biden won the election.
Appearing on CNN Monday evening, Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan told Jake Tapper, “It’s just getting ridiculous at this point. … It’s somewhat an embarrassment for the party. Look, this election is over.”
Hogan went on to add that it’s time for all Republicans to stop thinking this election is going to be overturned.
“Now we’re several steps down the road,” Hogan said. “They’re out of runway. We just have to acknowledge it. This is embarrassing us. It’s an affront to our democratic process and it’s diminishing the presidency. I think it’s bad for our party, bad for the country and it weakens our position in the world.”
Pathetic display of the day
This quote — on the air, on her Fox Business show, on the day that the Electoral College formally named Joe Biden as the next president — from Maria Bartiromo:
“Challenging election results, as we await today’s Electoral College decision, an intel source telling me that President Trump did in fact win the election.”
Intel to what? An intel to misinformation? An intel to lies?
Have we ever seen a once-respected journalist obliterate her reputation as quickly and completely as Bartiromo has over the past few months as she pushes — and allowed Trump to push — baseless and reckless conspiracy theories about the election?
Big change at the L.A. Times
Norman Pearlstine is stepping away from his role as executive editor of the Los Angeles Times to become a senior adviser for the paper. Pearlstine announced in October that he would step down as executive editor but would remain in the role until a successor was named. Pearlstine, however, will step down now while the search for his successor continues. In his new role, he will report to owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and will help with finding a successor.
In the meantime, managing editors Scott Kraft and Kimi Yoshino will take over the day-to-day operations of the newsroom.
The Los Angeles Times’ Meg James writes that Soon-Shiong said in a memo to staff, “We cannot thank Norm enough for his contributions to The L.A. Times. As we became the new owners and needed to rapidly and thoughtfully revive this great American newspaper, Norm’s experience as a journalist and media executive proved invaluable.”
The 76-year-old Pearlstine, who came out of retirement in 2018 to run the Times newsroom, told staff in a memo, “Although work on finding my successor has just begun, I believe my work is done. There are several people on staff who are ready to succeed me and several talented editors from elsewhere have also asked to be considered.”
Here’s what I wrote when Pearlstine announced in October that he was stepping down:
“Pearlstine resigns after a difficult summer at the Times, which came under criticism for not having a diverse staff and other incidents of toxic and poor leadership. Those were the topics of a recent story by the Times chronicling a summer of scandal and turmoil. The Times also recently published a project called “Our Reckoning With Racism.” That project, which included a letter from Soon-Shiong and an editorial, addressed issues of historical racism at the Times, and the promise to make the staff more representative of the community it covers.”
Back to the future
One of the big topics that media observers have been kicking around is what is going to happen to cable news when Donald Trump is no longer president. Will ratings go up? Down? Will they be flat?
The New York Times’ John Koblin and Michael M. Grynbaum looked at what the future might hold for CNN and MSNBC, two networks that have been highly critical of Trump and his administration. Koblin and Grynbaum report that executives from both networks have held meetings with top on-air personalities and producers to discuss what post-Trump coverage might look like.
Ratings for CNN and MSNBC are thriving even since the election, as the networks cover Trump’s refusal to accept the election and the Biden transition. And, to be fair, the networks also have had heavy COVID-19 coverage, which attracts viewers.
“But,” the Times writes, “network executives paid to strategize for months and even years ahead, are turning their focus to a post-Trump, post-vaccine America and the changed viewing habits they may find there.”
This all happens at a time of flux. There are rumors that CNN president Jeff Zucker is close to leaving the network. Meantime, MSNBC just named a new president with Rashida Jones taking over for Phil Griffin, the man credited with putting together MSNBC’s strong primetime lineup.
Calling a doctor
Some leftover thoughts about the Wall Street Journal op-ed that said Dr. Jill Biden should not call herself a doctor because she’s not a medical doctor. I wrote about this in Monday’s newsletter, calling out the sexism, ridiculousness and pointlessness of the op-ed, as well as the Journal’s decision to run such an op-ed. Since then, Paul Gigot, the head editor of the Journal’s opinion section, defended the publishing of the op-ed and criticized the Biden team for acting “Trumpian” in its criticism.
Gigot wrote, “Why go to such lengths to highlight a single op-ed on a relatively minor issue? My guess is that the Biden team concluded it was a chance to use the big gun of identity politics to send a message to critics as it prepares to take power. There’s nothing like playing the race or gender card to stifle criticism.”
Or maybe they were calling out a sexist op-ed that shouldn’t have run. In the op-ed, Epstein said Dr. Biden should drop the name “doctor” because she’s soon to have a better title: First Lady. But First Lady is a title she gets because her husband is president, while “Dr.” is for her accomplishments.
And, perhaps Gigot should take some of his own medicine. If you’re going to run a controversial piece, don’t be shocked or juvenile when you are criticized for that piece.
Some more to this: I received several emails on Monday from those pointing out that the Associated Press stylebook does suggest using Dr. for medical doctors only. It says, “Use Dr. in first reference as a formal title before the name of an individual who holds a doctor of dental surgery, doctor of medicine, doctor of optometry, doctor of osteopathic medicine, doctor of podiatric medicine, or doctor of veterinary medicine.”
However, it should be noted that the AP uses “Dr. Biden” quite often. In addition, AP’s stylebook isn’t written in stone. They aren’t rules as much as they are guidelines, and my thought is anyone who has earned a doctorate, regardless of their field, deserves to be called “Dr.”
End of an era
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is stepping down from his weekly “PBS NewsHour” segment with David Brooks. After 33 years, Shields’ final appearance will be Dec. 18. He will remain with “NewsHour” as a senior contributor. His successor on the segment with Brooks has yet to be named.
Shields became a “NewsHour” regular in 1987 and has done segments with Brooks, David Gergen and Paul Gigot. In a statement, Shields said, “For 33 years, thanks to a large risk taken by Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil in 1987, I’ve had the best job in Washington journalism.”
In the same statement, “PBS NewsHour” anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff said, “It has been one of the great joys of my life at the ‘NewsHour’ to follow Jim Lehrer in talking with Mark and David every Friday evening. Mark’s encyclopedic knowledge of American politics and history, his sense of humor, fierce love of justice and country, and intolerance for phonies, has earned him a permanent place in our hearts and the hearts of our viewers. We will all miss him terribly and look forward to any future bits of wisdom he wants to drop by to share.”
Sadly today, we remember the lives of three journalists who have passed away.
- Meg Jones, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has died just a month after being diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. She was 58. In a wonderful tribute in the Journal Sentinel, Bill Glauber wrote, “Unflappable on deadline and fearless in the field, she could write about anything, from a 16-month-old snow leopard getting used to her new digs at the Milwaukee County Zoo to Bucks fans watching their beloved basketball team playing in Paris. Meg was all Wisconsin, from her green-and-gold Green Bay Packers earrings to her red-and-white University of Wisconsin sweatshirt.”
- Edgardo del Villar — an anchor at Telemundo station WNJU, which serves the New York and New Jersey area — died after a battle against brain cancer. He was 51. Del Villar worked in radio and print before joining Telemundo in 2013. He worked at the network’s headquarters in Miami before moving to WNJU in 2017.
- Former Charlotte Observer courts reporter Gary Wright died after years of declining health. He was 69. The Observer’s David Perlmutt wrote, “For more than 35 years he wrote about the biggest trials and crime stories in North Carolina — notching scoop after scoop — and winning the respect of judges, lawyers and colleagues with his unrelenting diligence and blunt honesty.” Poynter’s Cheryl Carpenter, the former managing editor of The Observer, told Perlmutt that she sent other reporters, especially those who were error-prone, to learn from Wright. “He had a fact-checking process that he followed with discipline,” Carpenter told Perlmutt.
Walsh won’t return to CNN
CNN contributor Joan Walsh said Monday that the network was not renewing her contract. New York Magazine/HuffPost contributor Yashar Ali first broke the news on Twitter. In a statement to Ali, Walsh said, “I’m grateful to CNN for the opportunity. Nobody is promised a decade of paid TV commentary. Arguably, nobody deserves it! I am certainly willing to contribute to my friends’ shows on MSNBC and on CNN too when I’m right for the topic.”
New hire at The New York Times
Siddhartha Mahanta has joined The New York Times Opinion section as vertical editor for business, economics and technology. Mahanta was the managing editor of Rest of World, a digital magazine that covers tech, business and culture. Before that, he worked at Foreign Policy magazine, The Atlantic, Business Insider, the National Journal and Mother Jones.
- The Atlantic’s Ed Yong, whose coronavirus coverage has been masterful, with “How Science Beat the Virus.”
- Stunning work here by CNN’s Tim Lister, Clarissa Ward and Sebastian Shukla: “CNN-Bellingcat Investigation Identifies Russian Specialists Who Trailed Putin’s Nemesis Alexey Navalny Before We Was Poisoned.”
- Exemplary work in The New York Times from Joe Drape, David W. Chen and Tiffany Hsu, with graphics by Larry Buchanan and Karl Russell in “2020: The Year in Sports When Everybody Lost.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources for journalists
- Covering COVID-19 with Al Tompkins (daily briefing). — Poynter
- Power Up Leadership in Tough Times (Winter 2021) (Seminar) — Apply by: Jan. 18
- Write Your Heart Out: The Craft of the Personal Essay (Seminar) — Jan. 25-Feb. 19
- Poynter Producer Project (Seminar) — Apply by: Feb. 8
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