There’s a new White House press secretary, but does it even matter?

Your Wednesday Poynter Report

April 8, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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A little more than a month ago — Feb. 25, to be exact — this quote was said on national television:

“We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here.”

Who said it?

The new White House press secretary.

Well, that didn’t age well.

First, let’s look back at outgoing White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. Which was her best official White House press briefing? I’ll give you a second to think about it.

That was a trick question, because she didn’t give even one during her nine-month tenure.

Was that her fault? Not entirely. Certainly, her boss had a lot to say about that. Then again, did Grisham ever push back against President Donald Trump? Did she ever try to persuade the president to do what White House administrations from both parties have been doing for years? Did she ever try to convince him that it was the White House’s duty to go beyond Twitter to explain government actions and answer questions important to the American people?

Then again, Grisham was merely continuing a more recent tradition set by Sarah Sanders, the previous White House press secretary, who had cut out official press conferences.

As Grisham heads back to where she came from, to become First Lady Melania Trump’s chief of staff, Kayleigh McEnany takes over as the new White House press secretary. Here’s what we know about her:

She’s 31, a native of Tampa, Florida, and a graduate of Harvard Law School. She’s the former spokesperson for the Trump re-election campaign and a staunch supporter of the president.

The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman wrote, “Ms. McEnany has been a vocal defender of Mr. Trump on television, the main role the president has long believed the press secretary should play, according to current and former advisers. … Her television outings, like others who have defended Mr. Trump, have often been at the extreme end of the administration’s talking points.”

McEnany has extensive TV experience. She was a contributor at CNN and often a guest on Fox News and Fox Business.

But she is best known, lately, for a viral clip from Fox Business on Feb. 25 when she said, “This president (Trump) always puts America first; he will always protect American citizens. We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here. We will not see terrorism come here. And isn’t it refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama?”

Will we see McEnany in the briefing room behind the podium? Unlikely, especially now that Trump has embraced the daily coronavirus task force press conferences. When those go away, so likely will all White House press conferences from the briefing room.

If you want to see McEnany, tune in often to Fox News, where I suspect she will be a frequent guest.

The Pulitzers are delayed

Journalism’s most prestigious awards are being delayed because of the coronavirus. Pulitzer Prize winners were supposed to be announced on April 20. Now, the awards for journalism, books, drama and music will be announced on Monday, May 4 at 3 p.m. Eastern via livestream at Pulitzer.org.

In a statement, Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy said, “The Pulitzer board includes many high-level journalists who are on the frontlines of informing the public on the quickly evolving Coronavirus pandemic. As they focus on this critical mission, this postponement will provide additional time to thoroughly evaluate the 2020 Pulitzer finalists.”

The annual awards luncheon, usually held at Columbia University in May, also will be postponed. There is hope a reception for winners can be held at a later date, perhaps in the fall.

To hold you over, be sure to check out Roy Harris Jr.’s piece on Poynter previewing this year’s Pultizers for journalism.

Plainly bizarre and wrong

The Cleveland Skyline from 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File)

What the heck is going on in Cleveland? Just days after 22 newsroom staffers at The Plain Dealer were laid off, a bizarre edict came down from ownership.

The 14 remaining newsroom staffers, for the most part, were told to not cover stories in Cleveland, Cuyahoga and Summit counties, and could no longer report on stories considered a “statewide” issue. The remaining Plain Dealer reporters are now assigned to counties away from Cleveland. Covering Cleveland and the state is now reserved for Cleveland.com, the Plain Dealer’s non-union sister newsroom.

Cleveland Scene’s Sam Allard reports the lone exceptions will be Plain Dealer columnists Terry Pluto and Phillip Morris, art and architecture critic Steven Litt and regional travel writer Susan Glaser.

The guild in Cleveland put out this statement: “This decision is a loss for the people of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County who care about in-depth and solutions-based reporting that Plain Dealer reporters have consistently provided in recent years and a win for public officials and others who don’t want their misdeeds uncovered.”

Allard wrote, “And so the paper’s remaining staffers are now faced with a devastating decision: they can either leave and let the state’s largest paper, (and the country’s first News Guild), die, ceding victory at last to the Newhouses of Advance Publications who’ve been ruthlessly and methodically busting the PD’s union for years; or they can stay on, suffering the indignities of filing low-stakes stories on distant locales that haven’t been part of the paper’s regular coverage area for years.”

More layoffs

The latest media gut-punch comes from Group Nine Media. Sara Fischer of Axios reports that Group Nine — which includes digital outlets such as The Dodo, NowThis, Thrillist, Seeker and PopSugar — is laying off 7% of its employees, as well as mandating furloughs for some. Fischer wrote the layoffs will include about 50.

It’s tough and overwhelming to look at, but check out the list of media layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs compiled by Poynter’s Kristen Hare. Unfortunately, she is updating the list daily.

Letters to readers

There is so much depressing news these days about how the coronavirus has thrown a wrench into the business models of news outlets, which have been forced to take drastic cost-cutting measures (layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs) to keep afloat. But strong journalism remains, and I thought I would point out letters written by two news editors to their readers on Tuesday.

First, Buffalo News president and publisher Warren T. Colville wrote about the sacrifices being made by everyone. He said:

“As necessary as those moves toward social isolation have been, they’ve also brought our economy to a standstill. Like so many others, it’s upended our company in ways unimaginable just one month ago. But our mission endures. … The outpouring of feedback we’ve received from readers throughout Western New York and beyond has been truly heartening. These are vivid reminders of the importance of our work, in a time of incredible challenges. Thank you, to all our readers, for your continued support.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Whitmer, the lead editor for NJ Advance Media properties, made a plea to readers. He wrote:

“Simply put: We must have financial support from our readers to provide the essential journalism that serves and informs our communities. Your voluntary subscription to NJ.com — $10 per month — will help us continue this vital work. Why now? The cost to produce the great journalism like you can find here — in time and money — continues to climb, and COVID-19 is taking advertisers and print subscribers from us. Our industry has been in financial crisis for at least 15 years and will not survive unscathed.”

The ratings game

CBS “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

I try not to list television ratings too often in this newsletter because, frankly, I’m not sure how much people really care about such things. But I have been, lately, just to point out how strong the viewership has been for national news. True, people are stuck at home and TV is an easy way to fill time. But you would have to believe that Americans are craving information about coronavirus, and the news channels have certainly hustled to step up coverage.

So, let’s start with this past Sunday morning. CBS’s “Face the Nation,” featuring an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, had a whopping 5.15 million viewers — bested only by March 22nd’s show, which was “Face the Nation’s” best audience in 28 years.

Meanwhile, NBC’s “Meet the Press” continues to have its best audiences in 15 years. Last week’s show — featuring interviews with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Govs. Jay Inslee (D-Wash) and Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark), and Italy Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte — drew 4.4 million viewers.

And “Fox News Sunday” had its highest-rated telecast (2 million viewers) since moderator Chris Wallace interviewed then President-elect Trump on Dec. 11, 2016.

On the evening news broadcasts, ABC’s “World News Tonight” has been leading the way and is having its best audiences since January 1997. It averaged 13.6 million viewers last week, a little more than the 10.6 million that tuned in for the “NBC Nightly News.” The “CBS Evening News” had 7.1 million, but while that was third, it was still among CBS’s most-watched programs.

Meanwhile, Fox News continues to dominate the cable news landscape in all-day viewers, and especially primetime. Recently, a Poynter Report reader argued that those not inclined to watch Fox News might be splitting their viewership between CNN and MSNBC. So, I’ll note that, typically, if you add up the viewership of CNN and MSNBC, it is slightly larger (but not by much and not always) than Fox News.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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