There’s the daily update from President Trump’s medical team. Then when it’s over, we get the real information.
That’s because the head of Trump’s medical team, Dr. Sean P. Conley, seems to be giving updates directed at an audience of one: President Donald Trump. And that’s why the media’s work has been particularly crucial at this time.
As The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips wrote, “information has perhaps never simultaneously been so important and so hard to come by.”
The information, or lack of it, coming out of Trump’s medical team is the problem. After a third day of Conley answering some questions, while refusing to answer or dodge others, CNN White House correspondent John Harwood tweeted, “Conley behaves more like a political operative than a physician.”
On the same day when Trump left the hospital to return to the White House — just as the network evening news was airing on the East Coast — Conley went into great detail to describe positive elements of Trump’s health. But he then cited HIPAA laws to avoid answering other direct and seemingly critical questions. Many pointed out the irony that Conley used HIPAA to refuse to answer questions about Trump’s health while giving a press conference whose very purpose was to answer questions about Trump’s health.
Conley refused to answer several questions about Trump’s condition, including what tests are showing about Trump’s lungs. And then he refused to answer one of the most important questions of all, a question that could impact many others: When was his last negative COVID test? CNN’s Jim Acosta reported that sources told him that Trump likely is telling Conley what to disclose and what not to disclose in his updates.
In a nutshell, here’s what Conley said on Monday: The president’s vitals are good, he seems to be improving, he’s not out of the woods, and at this point, they can keep an eye on him as well at home as in the hospital.
As always, however, we had to wait for the “post-game” coverage to get a handle on what’s what. And the best place to turn has been Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN.
“He said he’s in unchartered territory, he said the president is not out of the woods yet, time to go home,” Gupta said. “It makes no sense. You don’t need to be a doctor to read into that. This is not a medical decision, clearly.”
Gupta later said, “If Dr. Conley is saying he’s not out of the woods yet then why is he sending him home? Or why is he allowing him to be sent home, I should say. Maybe he has no power over this, which is probably the case. This is not a good medical decision. … Unless there’s something we’re not being told. And the truth is, they are hiding information from us. Are they hiding information from us that would suggest he was actually better than it seems? Or are they hiding information that would suggest he is worse than it seems? We don’t know.”
Even over on Fox News, which typically paints the rosiest of pictures when it comes to all things Trump, there was a bit of caution. Dr. Bob Lahita said on Fox News that it sounded as if Trump was doing well, but added, “You have to be careful with this COVID-19. It can turn on a dime.”
He also said there should be a concern about the president’s lungs. “I think the lungs are the target right now for that virus in him.”
And, most notably, Lahita said the “hospital” set up at the White House is very good and he will be getting excellent care, but added, “I don’t know that I would mix him up yet campaigning with a lot of people.”
The problem continues to be a lack of transparency.
On Fox News’ “The Five,” Juan Williams said, “(Trump) has not been transparent with us. And as a result, it’s hard to trust.”
Which leads me to …
A matter of distrust
One of the more troubling parts of President Trump’s Monday afternoon tweet that he was going home were these two sentences: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
It seemed like an incredibly tone deaf thing to say as the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. passed 210,000 within minutes of Trump’s tweet. Williams called it “reckless.” Gupta called it “gross.”
Then again, a new CNN poll shows that Americans do not trust what Trump and the White House have to say about Trump’s own health or the coronavirus anyway. The poll showed that 69% of Americans said they trusted little of what they heard from the White House about the president’s health with only 12% saying they trusted almost all of it.
Meanwhile, 60% say they disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. That’s an all-time high. Back in April, that number was at 52%.
There were many reactions to the sight of Trump removing his mask when he arrived back at the White House. The most profound might have come from “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt:
“Many Americans can only shake their heads.”
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Spreading the virus
The number of positive COVID-19 tests out of the White House are now starting to pile up. More than a dozen that President Trump has been around in the past week or so have now tested positive for COVID-19, including another notable name on Monday: White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
McEnany said on Twitter, “After testing negative consistently, including every day since Thursday, I tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday morning while experiencing no symptoms.” She added she did not know of Hope Hicks’ positive coronavirus diagnosis before she held a White House press briefing last Thursday. She said she will quarantine and work remotely.
McEnany met with reporters indoors last week and then spoke with reporters on Sunday. Sunday’s quick briefing was outside, but she removed her mask to speak. And several journalists who cover the White House have tested positive.
In response, the White House Correspondents’ Association put out a statement that said, “We wish Kayleigh, the president and everyone else struggling with the virus a swift recovery. As of this moment we are not aware of additional cases among White House journalists, though we know some are awaiting test results. We strongly encourage our members to continue following CDC guidance on mask-wearing and distancing — especially when at the White House — and urge journalists to seek testing if they were potentially exposed.”
In a tweet, New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi called it a “weak ass” statement, adding, “Kayleigh McEnany directly endangered the lives of those around her, including members of the press. I expect a stronger defense of journalists from the WHCA when their safety is at risk.”
CNN’s Brian Stelter, on air, said, “I’m also hearing from White House reporters who are quite angry, who think the association should have spoken out more forcefully … and call this what it is: It’s outrageous. Look, I don’t want to kick somebody while they are down and sick, but McEnany’s behavior, her conduct was outrageous. It’s more evidence of a coverup, more evidence of denialism at the White House up until the point you start coughing and you can’t deny it anymore.”
In a stunning interview on CNN on Monday morning, New York Times White House reporter Michael D. Shear, who has tested positive for COVID-19, said he had not been contacted by anyone in the White House.
“Nobody in the White House has said ‘boo’ and asked anything about where I was or who I talked to or who else I might have infected,” Shear said. “I think that that just shows you they’re not taking it seriously, at least as it pertains to themselves.”
Shear was on Air Force One last Saturday and spoke with Trump that night. He also was at the White House earlier that day and said that was the last time he was “out and about.”
“So it’s pretty clear,” Shear said, “that somewhere along the course of that day is when I got infected.”
One White House correspondent told Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo, “People are livid. There are a lot of us, like dozens of reporters, who feel it’s unsafe to be doing it the way it’s being done. Literally half the White House has the virus they have downplayed for seven months. I mean, it’s just unnecessarily risking serious illness or death, for no reason.”
Reporters at the White House
The New York Times Michael M. Grynbaum notes that there’s a sign on the door of the press briefing room at the White House that says, “Masks Required Beyond This Point. Please wear masks over both your nose and mouth at all times.”
Grynbaum also notes that the sign was not put up by the White House. It was put up by the White House correspondents.
ABC News’ Jonathan Karl told Grynbaum, “The only place on the White House grounds where a mask has been required is the White House press area, and the only people who have routinely violated that rule have been White House staff.”
A debatable point
Vice President Mike Pence was at the Rose Garden gathering last week that introduced Amy Coney Barrett as the Supreme Court justice nominee — an event that is now being described as a possible superspreader of the coronavirus considering how many there have now tested positive for COVID. And while Pence has said he continues to test negative, two questions:
Shouldn’t he self-quarantine? And should there be a debate on Wednesday between Pence and Kamala Harris?
During an appearance on CNN, Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, who is the director of the infectious disease division at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said, “It’s the right question to ask. Technically, if you follow the rules, he should be quarantined and he should not be around anyone, including Kamala Harris. … I think his failure to follow the most basic public guideline is just one angle of the debacle that this very disheartening event has put to those of us who felt like we’ve been yelling into the void now for literally six months.”
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted, “I don’t think it would be crazy — from a purely strategic standpoint, notwithstanding the health risk — for Harris to put her foot down and say leaders need to take COVID seriously and she won’t debate in person until Pence is out of the quarantine period.”
The latest is the debate will continue with Harris asking for plexiglass dividers separating her and Pence.
Pearlstine stepping down at L.A. Times
Norman Pearlstine is stepping down as executive editor of the Los Angeles Times. In a note to staff on Monday, Pearlstine said, “It has been an honor to serve as your executive editor since Patrick and Michele Soon-Shiong acquired the Los Angeles Times in June of 2018. Now, we have agreed that it’s time to begin an open search for my successor.”
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 Dr. 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.
Pearlstine, who recently turned 78, was originally brought in by Soon-Shiong in February 2018 to help find an editor for the paper. But then he ended up being named editor by Soon-Shiong, who said at the time, “He’s the perfect person to guide us into this new era.”
Before joining the Times, Pearlstine had senior positions at Time, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal. In 2019, Poynter honored Pearlstine with the 2019 Distinguished Service to Journalism Award.
In his note to staff, Pearlstine said he has been asked to remain as executive editor during the search for a new one and has accepted an offer to continue as an adviser after a successor is named.
“I am proud of what we have accomplished,” Pearlstine wrote. “I also recognize it’s the right time to find a successor — an editor who embodies the qualities needed to continue The Times’ revival.”
Sunday Night Complaining
Check out this devastating lead on a New York Daily News story by Dennis Young: “Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead and the government has ground to a halt while much of the ruling party has contracted the coronavirus. The real victims: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, who were forced to wear a mask at work for a few hours on Sunday night.”
Young is correct to point out that while calling “Sunday Night Football” between the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, Michaels and Collinsworth did plenty of complaining about having to wear a mask. It started right away when Michaels said, “Santa Clara County officials have compelled us to wear masks, so that is the story.” Collinsworth said, “I don’t know who I am.”
Later, Michaels said, “We’re good boys, though. We’re going to get lollipops at the end of the game tonight.” And then closed by saying, “We’ll get rid of these things as soon as we possibly can.”
It was petty and insensitive whining from two guys who were told to wear a mask while calling a football game while more than 210,000 have died from the coronavirus.
- Writing for The New Yorker, Paige Williams with “Inside the Lincoln Project’s War Against Trump.”
- Another New Yorker story that I should’ve mentioned before now. But in case you missed it, a disturbing story from Jane Mayer: “The Secret History of Kimberly Guilfoyle’s Departure from Fox.”
- A series from The New Republic: “In the Balance: The Fight for America’s Battleground States.”
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
- Inside the Newsroom With NBC News’ Chuck Todd moderated by Tom Jones — (Online Event) – Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. Eastern, Poynter
- Will Work for Impact: Investigative Reporting (Online Group Seminar) — Oct. 28-Nov. 18, Poynter
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