March 30, 2020

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In this frightening time, one thing matters above all else: facts.

What do the numbers say? What does the science show? What do the models predict? What are we seeing on the front lines, especially in hospital emergency rooms and the government offices where decisions are being made?

We get these facts from the media.

Let’s stop and acknowledge that “media” is a strange word. It’s not as if there is one big news group that gathers each morning and sets the daily agenda for every newspaper, website, TV and radio station in the country. In other words, it’s incorrect and, frankly, irresponsible to lump ALL news outlets into one catch-all word.

But, in this case, let’s use the word “media” to define how we are receiving information about the biggest story of our lives. That “media” includes news stories, investigative reporting, human-interest features, opinion columns and, yes, rhetoric that pushes a political cause over the facts people need to know to get through this coronavirus pandemic.

But let’s concentrate on how I started this newsletter — the facts.

When it comes to information, nothing is more important right now than the work being done in local media because citizens out there need to know what’s happening in their neighborhoods as much — if not more — than what is happening across the country and globe. While we are horrified by the stories coming out of New York City, most of us are more immediately concerned with our jobs, our kids and how to stop our hometowns from living the nightmare that New York is going through right now. We want to know what is happening, and would could happen, where we live.

That’s why it’s critical to see such stories as:

Papers such as The Des Moines Register, The Arizona Republic, The Oregonian, Anchorage Daily News, The (Raleigh) News & Observer and many more have dwindling staffs working countless hours in extreme conditions to publish stories specifically geared to their communities and state. Those are just a few examples of the kind of journalism that’s taking place all over the country.

And, television and radio stations deserve a mention, too. One Poynter Report reader emailed me to say that Chicago Tonight, a news show from PBS Station WTTW, has become must-watch viewing to get the latest coronavirus news in Chicago.

Local reporting is crucial. Which is what makes this next item so disturbing.

Barred from doing her job

A reporter representing two of Florida’s biggest newspapers — the Miami Herald and the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times — was barred from covering Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Saturday coronavirus press conference.

Mary Ellen Klas, a Herald staff writer who works in the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald bureau in Tallahassee (the state capital), was excluded because she had previously raised concerns about social distancing during DeSantis’ news conferences. The governor’s office made DeSantis’ press conference available to Klas through satellite TV, but that meant she wasn’t able to ask questions. Klas filmed her exchange with a representative from the governor’s office.

“I asked for social distancing,” Klas told David Smiley of the Miami Herald. “I didn’t ask to be excluded. The problem with having this available on a satellite feed is there’s no interaction, and we’d already had several days where they weren’t answering (our) questions.”

Herald executive editor Aminda Marques Gonzalez and Times executive editor Mark Katches both condemned the decision to bar Klas from the press conference. Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano wrote that the governor’s decision was “selfish and inexcusable.”

“Understand, this is not a journalist’s whine about favoritism or payback,” Romano wrote. “This is about your right to get answers from your governor. When elected officials begin censoring the news media, the potential for governmental abuses grows exponentially.”

In a statement, Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, “Right now government officials should be prioritizing getting accurate information out to the public. Excluding reporters from a press conference, at a time when all Americans are being called upon to fight the spread of COVID-19, does a disservice to the countless Floridians who depend on the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times for their news. The Reporters Committee calls on Governor DeSantis to stop selectively barring these — or any — new organizations from covering his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Ultimately, DeSantis wasn’t shutting out the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times. He was shutting out hundreds of thousands of Floridians who read those outlets for potentially life-saving information.

Off-base tweet

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

While we’re talking about Florida politicians and the media, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio riled up many in the media Sunday with this tweet:

Some in our media can’t contain their glee & delight in reporting that the U.S. has more #CoronaVirus cases than #China

Beyond being grotesque,its bad journalism

We have NO IDEA how many cases China really has but without any doubt its significantly more than why they admit to

Rubio’s tweet sparked immediate backlash from many in the media, both local and national. ABC News’ White House correspondent Jonathan Karl cut right to the key question on Twitter by asking Rubio, “Who are you talking about, Senator Rubio? Who feels ‘glee & delight’ when more people are sick? Who?”

NBC News’ Doha Madani tweeted: “Shocking, SHOCKING news. Journalists are people, too. We have friends and family hospitalized or at high risk. We have friends and family who have lost their jobs. We too fear losing our jobs. We too are tired of being inside. We are NOT feeling joy here.”

Another strange tweet

President Donald Trump, quoting from a New York Times story by media writer Michael M. Grynbaum, tweeted how his daily news conferences are drawing huge TV viewers.

Fox News’ Brit Hume quote tweeted Trump’s tweet and added, “Why bother to tweet about this, of all things?”

With everything going on at the moment, it did seem to be an odd time to brag about TV ratings for news conferences that are necessary to address an epidemic that is killing thousands.

Strongest moment

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing on Sunday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

As expected, the Sunday morning news programs spent their entire broadcasts talking about the coronavirus. All were good, all had good guests, all had enlightening conversations. But the most chilling moment came during Chuck Todd’s interview with Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Birx said, “No state, no metro area will be spared.” She also advised “every single governor and every single mayor to prepare like New York is preparing now.”

Good or bad question?

The most controversial moment from the Sunday morning shows was Chuck Todd asking Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden if President Trump has “blood on his hands” because of his response to the coronavirus. Biden said that was “too harsh.”

“Tim Russert would never ask a question like this,” The Hill media reporter Joe Concha tweeted. “Even Joe Biden didn’t take the bait to assist in a viral moment attempt.”

Was the question unfair? Maybe the phrase “blood on his hands” was a tad graphic, but with the deal toll at more than 2,300 and climbing fast, asking if more should have been done is a completely fair question.

A firing at Fox

CNN’s S.E. Cupp had critical words for Fox Business parting ways with Trish Regan. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Trish Regan is out at Fox Business. The official word is that Fox Business “parted ways” with the primetime host, and Regan put out a statement about how she enjoyed her time at Fox and that she’s “looking forward to this next chapter in my career.”

Define it however you like, but it appears Regan was fired. It all goes back to a rant earlier this month on her primetime show when she said the coronavirus was a “scam” to make President Trump look bad. Shortly after Regan’s comments, the show was placed on hiatus because, Fox claimed, it wanted to put more resources and attention on coronavirus coverage.

Regan is out, but Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” asked a fair question: Why is Regan out when other Fox News personalities have said similar things?

“I’m outraged for her,” CNN’s S.E. Cupp said. “I didn’t like her monologues. I found them to be irresponsible. But when you’re out there doing what’s expected of you, and what other people are doing and are rewarded for, it’s sort of infuriating. … That was real irresponsible journalism. But at the same time, Judge Jeanine Pirro, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs I think have said worse and are still there.”

“Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter had a good guess when he noted that Regan doesn’t draw the TV ratings that others, especially Hannity and Ingraham, do.

Attacking the media

On the topic of “Reliable Sources,” New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman was a guest Sunday, and responded to a Twitter attack from President Trump. Trump had tweeted, “She is a third rate reporter who has nothing going. A Fake News ‘journalist.’”

On Sunday, she told Stelter that when he attacked her verbally during the campaign and early in his presidency, it had “much more of a ripple effect.”

“Look,” Haberman said, “we need to ignore it other than just refuting the substance although, really, there wasn’t substance. (It was) just a character attack. … I have to be honest, his attacks these days on media generally don’t prompt the same reaction that they used to. I think it has become part of the noise. I think he tends to return to the same trick over and over again and I think it just sort of loses its spark after a while.

“I understand that he’s frustrated,” Haberman added. “I understand that he’s having a hard time. But that has nothing to do with what whether we’re saying is true or false, and this is a president who has said all kinds of things that are not true about this crisis and continues to say them, including about the availability and frequency of testing. … I think he needs to be more concerned with how his own government is performing as opposed to how the media is performing.”

The Times put out a tweet defending Haberman: “Maggie Haberman is a trusted journalist whose reporting has stood the test of time. As President Trump’s campaign said today, Maggie is ‘one of the most powerful and respected political reporters in the country.’”

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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…
Tom Jones

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