By:
April 13, 2020

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Throughout this coronavirus pandemic, terrific work is being done by news organizations, big and small, throughout the country. To single out just one wouldn’t be fair.

But I will anyway.

The New York Times, again and again, has produced impactful journalism that sets it apart from most, if not all, news outlets during this time. When I asked Times executive editor Dean Baquet a week ago what the key was, he told me, “I think the best thinking we have tried to convey is to remind people of the obvious — we are all actually living the story we are covering. We all have relatives and friends whose lives have been upended. Our own lives have been profoundly altered. That should make us empathetic and give us story ideas.”

Over the weekend, two stories from the Times stood out.

The first was a blockbuster showing President Donald Trump’s slow response to the pandemic. Written by six reporters — Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger, Maggie Haberman, Michael D. Shear, Mark Mazzetti and Julian E. Barnes — the Times reported that Trump was warned by health experts and some senior advisors of the deadly coronavirus crisis weeks before he and his team took any real action to minimize its spread. The Times wrote:

“Throughout January, as Mr. Trump repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus and focused on other issues, an array of figures inside his government — from top White House advisers to experts deep in the cabinet departments and intelligence agencies — identified the threat, sounded alarms and made clear the need for aggressive action.

“The president, though, was slow to absorb the scale of the risk and to act accordingly, focusing instead on controlling the message, protecting gains in the economy and batting away warnings from senior officials. It was a problem, he said, that had come out of nowhere and could not have been foreseen.”

The president, as he typically does with stories he doesn’t like, took to Twitter to rip the Times, calling it, of course, “the Failing NY Times.”

During an interview on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, Baquet pushed back against Trump’s complaint of the Times’ use of anonymous sources, pointing out that many of the stories Trump talks about actually have on-the-record and named sources and other documentation to back up the reporting. That includes this weekend’s huge story.

“I would actually hope that people read the story and the headline,” Baquet said. “I would hope that the president reads it because I think his tweet maybe indicates that he had not read it. And I think you will see a very important historic portrait of a government that was slow to deal with the crisis.”

The other must-see journalism from the Times over the weekend was from opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof with accompanying video from Alexander Stockton, Zach Goldbaum and Michael Kirby Smith. The video and story takes viewers to the front lines of this crisis — inside two hospitals in the Bronx.

Mere words cannot describe the powerful project. And while it’s tough to get through, it’s important to remind people why social distancing is so critical. As a physician’s assistant said about what’s going on inside one of the Bronx hospitals, “If people saw this, they would stay home.”

Trump’s tweets

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing last Friday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As I just mentioned, President Trump attacked The New York Times on Twitter over the weekend. But the Times wasn’t the only media outlet on the receiving end of Trump’s Twitter rants.

Trump also ripped into Fox’s Chris Wallace, calling him, “worse than Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd of Meet the Press (please!), or the people over at Deface the Nation.”

Trump, apparently, is not pleased with Fox News at the moment, tweeting, “What the hell is happening to Fox News. It’s a whole new ballgame over there.”

He also tweeted, “Watching @FoxNews on weekend afternoons is a total waste of time. We now have some great alternatives, like @OANN.”

But, as New York Times reporter Peter Baker pointed out on Twitter, “Just before 6 pm, Trump calls watching Fox on weekend afternoons ‘a total waste of time.’ Three hours later he gives an interview to Fox.”

Trump called into Jeanine Pirro’s show, but only appeared for about six minutes. Trump also tweeted criticism of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and The Washington Post.

Attacking the Times

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

Trump wasn’t the only one attacking The New York Times over the weekend. Fox News’ Sean Hannity went after Times reporter Maggie Haberman in a series of tweets. You can go through the tweets here, here, here and here. You might note that Hannity used similar language as Trump, calling the Times a “dying paper,” even though the Times is one of the few newspapers in the country that is doing quite well.

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy pointed out, “As @seanhannity rants on Twitter against NYT for its reporting on Trump, it should be pointed out that he didn’t offer a single word of support to his colleagues at Fox yesterday when they were trashed by POTUS. He’s apparently more loyal to Trump than the people he works with.”

Tell us what you really think

Man, Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik must have chugged a couple of strong cups of coffee before his Sunday morning appearance on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” Zurawik blasted away at Trump in a rant criticizing the president’s lengthy daily news conferences.

“What’s worse is every minute he spends doing that, he is not getting respirators to hospitals, he’s not helping the states out with the kind of PPEs they need,” Zurawik said. “People are dying because of his foolishness. It’s really foolishness at this point. You know, America — you know, folks who loved him, fine. You voted for him. You stuck it to the elites for three years. But now your loved ones can die. The game’s over. This isn’t reality TV anymore. People are dying and this guy is acting a fool. And when he blows off at reporters … that’s when he loses it, because he can’t control that narrative. … We are so past time for Trump’s rhetorical games and his prancing around up there for two hours. It’s over! We need to save lives!”

Presidential infomercials

Speaking of Trump’s daily press briefings, presidential historian Jon Meacham gave his thoughts on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.”

“I think these briefings are really infomercials more than briefings,” Meacham said. “He is constantly selling his own reaction to the crisis in the face of facts. And I think ultimately what you’re seeing with the numbers is Americans at some intuitive level understand that the president is selling them, he’s not protecting them. One of the things he’s got to figure out politically is that this is a virus that can’t be bullied. It can’t be dismissed.”

Meacham noted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt died 75 years ago Sunday, and one of FDR’s beliefs was that the American people can handle bad news if leaders just give it to them straight.

“If you level with people, they will respond,” Meacham said.

Voices of the pandemic

If you haven’t seen it, check out The Washington Post’s terrific “Voices of the Pandemic,” which talks to everyday people as they deal with the impact of the coronavirus. The latest is from a man who owns a grocery store in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

The store owner, Burnell Cotlon, told the Post’s Eli Saslow the heartbreaking story of a woman he caught shoplifting eggs and hotdogs for her children. He let her take them, and extends credit to others even though he needs every dollar he can earn at this time, too.

“And what am I supposed to say?” Cotlon said. “I don’t blame any of these people. I like them. Some of these customers, I love. I truly do. They’re getting by however they can. It’s not their fault. It’s not like they’re asking me for handouts on gin or beer. I don’t sell alcohol. I won’t give loans on cigarettes. What they need is milk, cheese, canned goods, bread, toilet paper, bleach, baby wipes. It’s basics — the basic essentials.”

So while it’s crucial for media outlets to report on our leaders, these stories are crucial, too, and show how this is impacting all of us.

Saturday night special

Actor Tom Hanks hosted the at-home version of “Saturday Night Live.” (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

Did you happen to catch the at-home version of “Saturday Night Live?” While technically not live, the show was produced with all the “SNL” cast working from their homes.

The best skit might have the spoof on those who don’t know how Zoom works, but most of the skits were surprisingly funny and good despite the absence of elaborate sets and costumes.

Tom Hanks was technically the host, but he appeared just at the beginning and end and to introduce musical guest Chris Martin, who performed a superb cover of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm.” There also was a touching tribute to “SNL” music producer Hal Willner, who died last week from the coronavirus.

Besides being entertaining and innovative, there also was something reassuring about “SNL’s” effort. At a time when many are stressed out and worn down psychologically, the show showed that we all are going through this together — including cast members of one of the most all-time iconic television shows. Well done, SNL.

A controversial layoff

One of Sports Illustrated’s better-known writers — Grant Wahl, who mainly covers soccer — was laid off last week. It’s the latest move by SI’s new owner, The Maven, which has cut costs and been heavily criticized by those who love Sports Illustrated for damaging the once iconic brand.

The controversy started Friday when Wahl tweeted, “Maven just fired me from Sports Illustrated. No severance. Nothing.”

A short time later, a memo from Maven CEO James Heckman was conveniently leaked to several outlets. Heckman didn’t use Wahl’s name, but it was clear he was talking about him. Heckman said Maven went to several senior leaders and high-salaried employees and asked them to take pay cuts to help limit layoffs to 9% of Maven’s staff. Heckman wrote that everyone agreed, except one — presumably Wahl.

Heckman wrote, “This person made more than $350,000 last year to infrequently write stories that generated little meaningful viewership or revenue. Yet he trumpeted that he thought it shameful to be asked to participate in helping his fellow workers. To complain about a personal pay reduction when 31 others had just lost their jobs is incomprehensible in light of the sacrifices others made to help limit layoffs and maintain livable salaries for our staff. Such a me-first attitude is not part of the tradition and culture Maven is committed to maintaining.”

Wahl responded with a tweet saying he told Maven he would take a 30% pay cut during the pandemic, but to ask for a permanent 30% cut was “shameful.” He also said his base salary was “far below” $350,000 but he got a bonus because he was told by bosses his work was good. He also said he writes frequently.

It also should be mentioned that Wahl’s layoff came less than a week after he criticized Maven and Heckman for how the company was being run.

If you believe all the tweets and memos and statements, neither Maven, Heckman nor Wahl comes out of this looking good. But Wahl is a talented writer who should be scooped up soon by The Athletic or ESPN, while it appears as if Sports Illustrated continues down the path to eventual irrelevance. Late last year, The Washington Post’s Ben Strauss had a detailed piece about Sports Illustrated’s issues.

Banging pots and pans

Clay Travis is pretty well known by sports fans. He has his own website, he hosts a successful podcast and radio show and is a frequent TV guest. I’ve never had much use for him because he likes to bang pots and pans — that is, make a lot of noise just to get people to look at him. I’m not convinced he believes everything he says, but he’s sharp enough to know what riles up an audience, and there’s no denying that he has a following and that his fans are devoted to him.

Still, his commentary about the coronavirus fits right in with the argument that he just likes to stir things up. Nothing wrong with a sports radio guy saying outrageous stuff, unless it’s irresponsible stuff like this: “It’s unlikely in my opinion that more than a few hundred at most will die from the coronavirus in the United States. Could I be wrong? Certainly. I hope I’m not wrong. But I believe if you look at all the data, that’s the way I would analyze the coronavirus.”

He said this on Feb. 25, and he will have to live with that statement.

I bring it up now to direct you to two outstanding pieces about Travis and his dangerous commentary. The first is from The Outline’s Samer Kalaf, formerly of Deadspin, who wrote, “That Travis’s following is so dim is precisely why it’s harmful for him to not treat the coronavirus seriously and parse data in bad faith.”

The other piece is called “The Ballad of Clay Travis,” by The Bulwark’s Tim Miller. Miller’s column is a particularly strong look into Travis, his career and how Travis became what Miller calls a “notable contributor to the misinformation campaign that led many people to not take COVID-19 seriously.”

Miller’s column is a brutal, and yet completely fair, takedown of everything that’s wrong with someone like Travis and his dangerous rhetoric.

Hot type

Mitch McConnell. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

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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  • Tom…during my days at UPI we often did not have the time, luxury, or financing to dig deeply into the issues you critique for us in the NYT efforts. Sadly, I see folks such as Duterte in The Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil and many others taking the POTUS’ “fake news” thread to new levels of danger for the free press. Keep promoting the best of the best, and thanks for all of your efforts.

    Mark Scheinbaum, Adjunct Prof.
    Political Science and International Relations, Florida International Univesity, Miami.
    EDITOR (Cognella, San Diego, 2020) MEDIA AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS (academic anthology).