By:
March 23, 2020

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The media’s role with the coronavirus

It’s a new week, but everything feels the same. That’s because each day is the same — full of uncertainty, anxiousness and helplessness.

We wake up, gather our senses and realize it wasn’t just an awful nightmare. Then the dread returns. We reach for our phones, we open up our computers, we turn on our TVs and we begin the day the way we ended the last one — searching for answers about the coronavirus.

What’s the latest? How many new cases? How many more died? What’s going on with the stock market? What did the president tweet? What did the governor say? Is it getting worse?

We look for signs of hope between the grim reports. We look for an indication of how bad it will get and when it will all end.

It can become overwhelming as our thoughts turn from global to local to our own homes. Is my family safe? Am I safe? Can I do my job today? Do I even have a job?

But in these moments, as scary as it might be, most of the media are doing the responsible thing — providing truth, even if that truth is more pessimistic than optimistic. The media’s job is to present facts, not hope. It is to report what is really happening, not to paint over serious issues in order to make its audience feel better.

Most of all, the media aren’t trying to make any politician or leader look good or bad, but to hold those in power accountable for their actions — or inaction. They are there to get answers.

After all, the media aren’t just covering a story. They are a part of the story. EVERYONE is a part of the story, because this virus is affecting literally every single person.

So with that in mind, let’s get to the rest of today’s newsletter. Stay safe out there.

To air or not to air

President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing last week. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The daily briefing from President Donald Trump and the White House coronavirus task force is now part of the routine. While we should applaud the president and his team for giving updates and making themselves available for questions, there have been enough controversies, conflicting messages and squabbles between Trump and reporters that you have to ask how effective these news conferences are.

In fact, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote that networks should not even air the news conferences live because they are “dangerous” and “destructive.”

Sullivan wrote, “Trump is doing harm and spreading misinformation while working for his own partisan political benefit — a naked attempt to portray himself as a wartime president bravely leading the nation through a tumultuous time, the FDR of the 21st century.”

There’s no question that Trump, at times, seems to be treating these press conferences as substitutes for his rallies — touting his actions and making promises even though it’s clear that things are getting worse. And the end of Sunday’s news conference turned bizarre with Trump spouting off about how difficult it is for rich people to run for president. But it’s also true that Trump and his team are announcing exactly what they are doing, which is important information for Americans to know.

Sullivan isn’t suggesting the news conferences should be completely ignored.

“Should they cover the news that’s produced in them?” Sullivan wrote. “Of course. Thoroughly and relentlessly — with context and fact-checking built in to every step and at every stage.”

While I see Sullivan’s point that an edited briefing will provide nothing but facts without misinformation, divisiveness or false hope, Trump’s news conferences must be aired live and in their entirety. It’s critical to see what Trump and his team are doing and how they are thinking even if we don’t like or agree with it. When it comes to the president and his actions, it’s necessary that the media does not shield the American people and, in effect, protect Trump from the public.

When necessary, the media can go back and point out any misinformation, mistakes or conflicting messages — and find the truth amid all of that.

While Trump’s press conferences might occasionally be dangerous and divisive, not showing them would be irresponsible.

OAN’s divisive and illegitimate work

While legitimate news organizations are focused on providing the very best journalism they can, the One America News Network is using the pandemic as an opportunity to make a name for itself with its shameful behavior. That behavior is adding an unnecessary and harmful distraction in the fight against the coronavirus.

Last week, during a White House coronavirus news conference, OAN’s Chanel Rion set up President Trump to slam media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Not that Trump needs help, but she gave him a perfect opportunity to take a detour from speaking to the American people about this virus.

Trump continued his media attacks the next day when he called NBC’s Peter Alexander a bad reporter after Alexander asked Trump what he would say to Americans who are scared.

Then came Saturday. Trump and the White House coronavirus task force were near the end of what had been a mostly non-contentious briefing when OAN struck again. Reporter Jenn Pellegrino cited a Washington Post story and then asked Trump what he would say to the Post — in an obvious move to let Trump go off on the Post.

Trump denied the Post story, but not before first telling Pellegrino, “I love whoever you’re with. That’s such a nice question.”

Moments later, however, Trump appeared to know exactly who Pellegrino was when he said, “I think you write very fairly and you write very fair reports.”

I hesitated to write this item for fear of giving OAN exactly what it wants — publicity. But I write it in hopes of pointing out that OAN is the furthest thing from a fair and balanced news organization. It is a biased outfit that is more interested in pushing an agenda than providing facts and reporting on the most serious news story of our lives.

This is a time for serious news outlets to do serious work. Organizations like OAN that seek to make this all about politics need to get out of the way in these important White House news conferences and let real journalists do their work.

The most powerful statement

Fox News has shifted the tone of its coronavirus coverage in recent weeks, going from dismissing the virus to now taking it seriously. The Washington Post even put together a jaw-dropping clip showing how Fox News hosts flip-flopped on the coronavirus.

As an example, Fox News’ biggest star, Sean Hannity, said last week that “This program has always taken the coronavirus seriously and we’ve never called the virus a hoax.”

But the week before that, Hannity said, “They’re scaring the living hell out of people and I see it again as like, ‘Oh, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.’”

Again, Fox News has moved to a more responsible coverage and, to be fair, primetime host Tucker Carlson was among the first to criticize the responses of Donald Trump and the federal government. But even late last week, Fox News’ Brit Hume joined those on the far right to criticize NBC’s Peter Alexander for his legitimate question about what President Trump would tell Americans who are scared.

That led former Fox News contributor Julie Roginsky to tweet that Fox News’ coverage was “worse than malpractice.”

Roginsky expanded on those thoughts during her appearance on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” on CNN.

“The Fox News viewership is on average 65 years old,” Roginsky told host Brian Stelter. “They’re people who are much more susceptible than the average person as a result of their age to the virus, and they’re doing a disservice to their own viewers. That’s the biggest problem of all in this quest to protect the president, in this quest to make it look like the president is doing everything right.”

The most sobering quote

During an appearance on CNN Sunday afternoon, emergency room physician Dr. Leana Wen said, “Health care workers on the front lines are scared. We are terrified of bringing back COVID-19 to our families. And that fear is compounded by the fact that we just don’t have the equipment that we need to protect ourselves.”

The best TV moment

The closing credits of Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” (NBC News)

NBC’s “Meet the Press” used its final credits Sunday to thank those on the front lines in the war against coronavirus. As moderator Chuck Todd said: “These are the people who can’t work from home. These are the men and women that are helping to keep life as normal as possible for the rest of us.”

The list included the National Guard, caregivers, cashiers, cooks, chefs, infrastructure workers, delivery workers, doctors, drivers, educators, electricians, farmers, first responders, food manufacturers, gig-economy workers, grocery store staff, healthcare workers, IT workers, janitorial staff, law enforcement, mass transit workers, nurses, petroleum workers, pharmacists, postal workers, retail workers, scientists, security, truckers, waste management professionals and more.

Speaking of “Meet the Press,” Todd opened the broadcast by pointing out that other past national crises — 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor — did not do what coronavirus has done: empty the American landscape. Todd then asked if Americans are willing to endure a full national shutdown to stop the spread of the virus while we wait for many things: coronavirus tests, more protective equipment, more hospital beds and ventilators.

“We are facing a category 5 storm,” Todd said. “The question is: Are we prepared to temporarily sacrifice enough of the freedoms we as Americans take for granted, to knock this menace down to, at least, a category 3?”

Hot type

Singer Kenny Rogers. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

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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