April 20, 2020

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Sunday morning news shows have always been a go-to place to check on the pulse of the country and, in particular, dive into national politics.

What happened in the past week? What’s happening right now? What will happen next?

From world and national leaders to major players inside politics to those in the know with particularly thoughtful commentary, the Sunday morning shows deliver the kind of information that makes viewers smarter.

That has never been more true than now as we deal with the biggest news story of our lives. Sunday morning has become must-see TV. One can wear out the remote batteries cycling through ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, CNN and the others, but it’s the one place and time where viewers can get the critical news and policy plans that are vital to how we got to where we are and where we go from here.

Sunday was another example of the important role the shows play. So, today, I thought I’d start by looking back at the key moments from this Sunday’s morning news shows.

Mike Pence on NBC’s “Meet the Press”

Mike Pence made the Sunday morning rounds and, frankly, the vice president didn’t have a great day. His messaging during the daily coronavirus press briefings has generally been solid as he has shown empathy, leadership, calmness and given direct and confident answers. On Sunday, however, he filibustered his way out of many questions, the key one being when moderator Chuck Todd asked why President Donald Trump tweeted about how Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia should “liberate” themselves despite the contradictory message just the day before laying out the guidelines for how states should reopen.

When Pence went on a bit of tangent about how no one wants to reopen the country more than Trump, Todd tried to interrupt as Pence kept plowing forward.

“I’ve given you a lot of leeway here,” Todd told Pence. “I’ve not been wanting to interrupt you. That’s not true, I always want to jump in on some things. I’ve given you a lot of leeway. Why is the president trying to undermine the guidance you’ve been laying out and that he’s been — he laid out this guidance on Thursday and undermined it on Friday?”

Pence said, “Chuck, I just — I don’t accept your premise and I don’t think most Americans do either. The president has made it clear, he wants to reopen America.” And then he continued to filibuster more.

Todd rounded it up succinctly when he said, “It does seem as if the president wants credit for reopening the economy and he wants the governors to get the blame for not opening it fast enough.”

Pence on “Fox News Sunday”

Clearly this issue of Trump’s tweets to “liberate” three states led by Democratic governors has been controversial because that topic was the very first question that Chris Wallace asked Pence on “Fox News Sunday.”

Pence gave the same answers to Wallace that he did to Todd, saying, “Millions of Americans who have been embracing those social distancing measures and making the sacrifices … they want their governors to find a way to responsibly and safely reopen their state economies.”

When Wallace astutely and fairly pressed Pence by saying demonstrations in certain areas of the country were actually protesting specific guidelines laid out by Trump himself, and the federal government, Pence went to his Sunday morning talking point sheet by saying, “The American people know that no one in America wants to reopen this country more than President Donald Trump.”

But, for the record, several polls showed Sunday that two-thirds of Americans are worried about the country opening up too soon.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on CNN’s “State of the Union”

Northam told host Jake Tapper that the president’s tweets about liberating the state have not been helpful, especially because the state is planning to follow federal guidelines.

“This is not the time for protest,” Northam said. “This is not the time for divisiveness. This is time for leadership that will stand up and provide empathy, that will understand what’s going on in this country of ours with this pandemic. It’s the time for truth.”

Northam said that truth includes this fact: There still isn’t nearly enough testing to even think about reopening his state, or the country, but if his state can continue to see at least a two-week drop in cases, more protection equipment for health care workers and a significant increase in testing, that “we will open up our businesses just as soon as we can.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on “State of the Union”

The Michigan governor was not messing around when asked about Trump’s tweets to liberate Michigan.

“The only response is that Michigan right now has the third-highest death count in the country,” Whitmer said. “We are the 10th largest state. As you can deduce, this means we have a uniquely hard issue going on here, because it’s disproportionately hurting our state. And that’s why we need to take a uniquely aggressive action to protect people. Our actions are working. My stay-home order is one of the nation’s more conservative, but the fact of the matter is, it’s working.”

Piers Morgan on CNN’s “Reliable Sources”

This was the most captivating Sunday morning interview of all. Morgan, the former CNN host, is now a morning TV host in the United Kingdom. He was the very first winner of the celebrity version of Trump’s “The Apprentice” reality show back in 2008 and has long been friends with Trump. But despite his relationship with the president, Morgan put Trump on blast Sunday morning.

Where to even start?

Morgan’s biggest criticisms centered around Trump not being straight with the American people during his daily briefings, which Morgan said he watches with “mounting horror” and that Trump needs to put “the American people ahead of electioneering.”

“And all that is required from the president in those moments, and any world leader, frankly, they have to be calm, show authority, they have to be honest, they have to be accurate, entirely factual with what they’re telling the people and they have to have an ability to show empathy,” Morgan said. “He’s turning these briefings into self-serving rallies. I don’t understand why he can’t do the basics of crisis leadership, which is to make the public come with you, and to believe you, and to feel that you’re on their side and showing them the empathy that they need when so many people are dying.”

That set up his most crushing criticism: “On almost every level of that, Donald Trump at the moment is failing the American people. He’s turning these briefings into a self-aggrandizing, self-justifying, overly defensive, politically partisan — almost like a rally to him.”

There was more. Much more. But you get the point.

Other Sunday morning notes

  • President Trump was none too happy to see Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on “Fox News Sunday.” In a tweet, he criticized Pelosi as being “dumb” and said, “Wallace & @FoxNews are on a bad patch, watch!”
  • CBS’s “Face the Nation” had another strong week. No surprise, as it’s always one of the best hours in journalism each week. It had a good piece on the battle between those who want to reopen the country and those who remain worried about the opening up too soon, as well as excellent interviews that moderator Margaret Brennan had with Dr. Deborah Birx, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and an especially insightful conversation with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who told Brennan, “It seems that we’ve got things under control and within the capabilities of our medical and health establishments.”
  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee appeared on ABC’s “This Week” and told anchor George Stephanopoulos, “To have an American president encourage people to violate the law, I can’t remember any time in my time in America we have seen such a thing. It’s dangerous because it could inspire people to ignore things that could save their lives.”

Fox News’ coverage of the protests

(Courtesy: Fox News)

There’s a growing conversation in media circles about Fox News and its coverage of the protests in some parts of the country that want the country to reopen right away.

Is Fox News giving the appropriate amount of coverage for a newsworthy story? Or is it dedicating a disproportionate amount of time and, thus, condoning the protests and encouraging more of them?

There’s no question that the protests are a story. While the number of protestors might be relatively small in the grand scheme of things, there are enough of them that the story cannot be ignored. So, the question isn’t whether the protests should be covered.

But where Fox News can be questioned is whether or not it is covering the protests in such a way that does encourage them. And the answer to that is: absolutely.

There are plenty of examples that Fox News’ coverage is being punctuated with hosts who seem to be encouraging the protests.

On Saturday night, Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro concluded an interview with a protestor by saying, “A lot of people are very proud of you … Peaceful protests, civil liberties, it’s what we’re all about. Keep going.”

That’s hardly the first time Pirro has spoken out. Last week, she told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “The American spirit is too strong and Americans are not going to take it. And what happened in Lansing (Michigan) today, God bless them, it’s going to happen all over the country.”

That same protestor who appeared in Pirro’s show had been interviewed earlier in the week by Tucker Carlson, who said, “Thank you for coming on tonight, and thank you for exercising your constitutionally protected rights as an American. Bless you.”

And that exact same protestor, who has been organizing protests in Michigan, was on “Fox & Friends” the next day. So that made for three interviews in four days with the same protestor.

Late last week, Carlson defended protesters in Michigan by taking comments out of context. Then there’s this clip, which clearly shows “Fox & Friends” pushing the agenda that many protests are pushing.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham has tweeted several times (here, here and here) advocating for reopening the country. On Sunday, Hannity tweeted about protest plans in Pennsylvania and linked to a story from the website of conservative Jeffrey Lord.

There are plenty of other examples.

True, other networks are covering the protests. The “NBC Nightly News” opened its newscast Sunday with protest coverage, and ABC’s “World News Tonight” touched on it just minutes into its newscast as well. Its coverage was straightforward reporting.

Look, when to reopen the country is a valid topic, but it’s hard to watch Fox News and not come to the conclusion that many of its most popular shows and personalities have been pushing for the country to reopen sooner rather than later. And they are definitely covering the protests with a sympathetic eye, rather than an objective one.

Best feature

A scene from Sunday evening’s “60 Minutes.” (Courtesy: CBS News)

We keep looking for positive signs — flattening of the curve and so forth — but the fact is the nation is still badly struggling with coronavirus. Even in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday that the state appears to have “passed the plateau,” it’s still sobering to realize that 722 people died in New York on Friday and the numbers are still more than 500 a day. More than 11,000 have died in New York City alone.

The struggle was captured superbly on Sunday’s “60 Minutes” as correspondent Scott Pelley reported on the military stepping in to help. The New York Air National Guard Fatality Search and Recovery Team has been helping New York’s medical examiner office for more than three weeks, collecting bodies from facilities and residences.

Air National Guard 1st Lt. Shawn Lavin, who heads up the unit, told “60 Minutes,” “We started with 13 members three weeks ago. I think there’ll be close to 400 people doing what we’re doing by the end of this week. … We’ve been training for a decade since 2009 about how we collect fatalities in this kind of incidence. But there’s really no way to prepare for what we’re currently going through. You can have all the actors you want, or all the dummies laid out. … But when you’re actually doing it in the real world, with grieving families and people taking your picture doing it, it’s a much different atmosphere.”

The obits

(Screengrab from Times-Picayune and New Orleans Advocate obits page.)

Sunday’s Times-Picayune and New Orleans Advocate had eight pages of death notices. On a typical Sunday, it has half as many pages. The Boston Globe print edition had 15 pages of obits Sunday. Some Sundays, the Globe might have three pages of obits. And, as I wrote last week, The New York Times is now bringing in writers from other departments to help with obits.

Three things that popped into my head

  • In the past couple of weeks, TV doctors with TV-doctor names — Dr. Drew, Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil — have said dumb things on television about the coronavirus and all three had to apologize and/or walk back their comments the next day.  These latest examples of irresponsible and dangerous commentary should be enough to keep those guys off the air when it comes to COVID-19. Just because they have a Dr. in their title doesn’t make them legitimate guests. Otherwise, why not invite Dr. Dre or Dr. J?
  • Know what might be more effective than a daily White House press briefing? If President Trump were to, say twice a week, sit down for a 30-minute interview with the various networks — and not just Fox News. It seems doubtful this would ever happen, but we might get more information in those 30-minute interviews than we would in the 90-plus-minute briefings we’re getting now.
  • CNN’s Kaitlan Collins has made a name for herself in the past couple of weeks for her reporting from the White House. Just turned 28, Collins has shown impressive journalistic chops and has stood up to President Trump, but in a respectful way. She has asked fair, but tough questions. When asked by CNN’s Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources” on Sunday if it’s ever intimidating to confront the president, Collins said, “I think after a certain amount of time covering the president, you know his tactics, you know how he’s going to respond to some things. Sometimes it’s not favorable if he does not like being fact-checked in real-time or told what he’s saying is not an accurate description of what’s actually happening.”

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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