By:
January 25, 2021

Because of COVID-19, it has been a while since CBS “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan did a face-to-face interview with anyone. But on Friday, she sat down with Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator.

“It was the kind of conversation that you really need to have face-to-face,” Brennan told me. “When we finally sat down with her, I wasn’t sure exactly how candid she was going to be.”

And?

“She was incredibly candid,” Brennan said.

In an interview that aired Sunday morning and immediately generated headlines, Birx described a White House in which there were those who “definitely believed (COVID) was a hoax” and that “I know that someone — or someone out there or someone inside was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the president.”

To combat misinformation, Birx took to the road, often by car, to meet with governors and state officials to, essentially, preach a message that was not coming from the White House. It was a revealing interview that, in a rare move, took up most of the hourlong program.

Just after the interview aired, I had a chance to speak to Brennan by phone about her conversation with Birx.

Brennan said a lot of what Birx revealed in the interview confirmed what already had been reported. But to hear Birx pull back the curtain on just how much dysfunction there was inside the White House was still stunning.

“That’s what struck me,” Brennan said, “and what deeply troubled me.”

The issue wasn’t just Trump’s response, although that clearly was a chief reason for the issues we are having, but a systematic failure within the American health care system.

“If we do not fix (it),” Brennan said, “we will not be able to protect ourselves against the next pandemic. And that’s the story that sits with me and troubles me the most.”

In fact, before airing her taped (and socially-distant) interview with Birx, Brennan asked Dr. Anthony Fauci if there needs to be a 9/11-type commission to investigate the failings in the response to COVID-19. Brennan pointed out that even pandemics are political.

“But on the back end of this, what are we learning as a country?” Brennan said. “Do people actually delude themselves into thinking that a switch was flipped on Jan. 20 and then it all goes away? I think that’s why we on the show are going to stay committed to trying to get to the bottom of all of this. There is a lot to be accounted for from the Trump administration in terms of how they handled this pandemic.”

But, Brennan added, blaming all the coronavirus problems of the Trump administration would be like blaming the Bush administration for 9/11. The issue runs much deeper than that.

“This is just going to be the story of the next few years,” Brennan said.

I spoke with Brennan and “Face the Nation” executive producer Mary Hager last May about the program’s commitment to covering COVID-19 — a commitment that has not waned.

“I didn’t imagine it would bring the richest country in the world to its knees,” Brennan said.

That’s why it’s important, Brennan said, to stay after it, saying, “Every single member involved in this pandemic needs to be questioned and give their account of what happened. Not to be pilloried, but to educate ourselves. … You don’t learn anything by not talking to the people who are on the front lines of this.

In the interview, Birx said she kept extensive notes, almost daily, on meetings and research. She constantly sent emails and reports. Despite heavy criticism for whatever her role was, Birx said she is reassured by the fact that people will review her work someday and see what she did.

Brennan asked Birx: “Did you ever consider quitting?”

Birx said. “Always. … I mean, why would you want to put yourself through that every day? … I had to ask myself every morning: Is there something that I think I can do that would be helpful in responding to this pandemic? And it’s something I asked myself every night.”

It’s a job Birx almost didn’t take. She told Brennan she, initially, turned down several offers to join Trump’s task force because she feared it would become political. Finally, she gave in.

“They said this would be very technical, and that I would have a very technical position,” Birx told Brennan. “And because I thought that I could be helpful, which is the only reason I go and do anything. If I think I have something to add, I feel like it’s my obligation to the American public to go in and do that. That’s what a civil servant is supposed to do.”

Birx said she thought Trump took COVID-19 seriously early on, such as in March of last year. But soon after that, Trump and those closest to him might have turned their attention to reopening the country and, especially, his presidential campaign.

“The worst possible time you can have a pandemic is in a presidential election year,” Birx said.

Birx’s fears that her work would somehow be politicized became true.

Brennan told me, “She makes such a key point, which was: What are we doing as a country if we’re going to treat career professionals and technical staff as if they are tinged and damaged by political association if they go into work for an administration? You don’t want them motivated by politics, you want them motivated by expertise. That’s who you want. You want the best people.”

Birx, who plans to retire in the next month or so, said she never purposefully withheld information, but said she was “censored” by the White House. When Brennan asked what her biggest mistake was, Birx said, “I always feel like I could have done more, been more outspoken, maybe been more outspoken publicly.”

Facing Forward

One more note on Brennan. She is now the host of a new “Face the Nation” podcast called “Facing Forward.” The debut episode, which dropped last Friday, featured Illumina President and CEO Francis deSouza. The latest episode features the entire conversation with Birx.

I asked Brennan why a podcast?

“It’s long overdue and we’re happy it has come together now,” Brennan said. “One of the things we realized over the course of the last year is there is just so much news that we don’t have time for it all in just one hour each week.”

Why her?

Megyn Kelly. (RW/MediaPunch/IPX)

Former Fox News and NBC on-air personality Megyn Kelly appeared on the BBC over the weekend and actually blamed the media for the riots at the Capitol on Jan. 6. In an interview with the BBC’s Katty Kay, Kelly said the problems stemmed from the American media’s dislike of Donald Trump.

Kelly said, “They hated him so much, they checked their objectivity. It wasn’t just CNN, all of them did. They just couldn’t check their own personal feelings about him. Part of the reason we saw what happened at the Capitol here two weeks ago is because there has been a complete lack of trust, a destruction of trust in the media, and people don’t know where to turn for true information.”

It was MAGA supporters and conspiracy theorists, riled up by Trump, who stormed the Capitol. For Kelly to blame the media is unconscionable.

BBC contributor Hugh Lowell tweeted, “I’m sorry but I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous as Megyn Kelly saying on BBC Newsnight that Trump mobs attacked the Capitol because they didn’t trust the media — not Trump lying that the election was stolen.”

And while we’re at it: Why would the BBC even be interested in talking to Kelly?

NPR television critic Eric Deggans tweeted, “She’s a completely compromised pundit who washed out in her attempt to rebrand as both a serious journalist and empathetic talk show host at NBC. Why (in) the world is the BBC talking to her about news coverage of anything?”

Stephanopoulos scolds Paul

Speaking of bad guests, no one should be surprised that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went on ABC’s “This Week” and refused to acknowledge the election was not “stolen” from Donald Trump. It was good, however, that moderator George Stephanopoulos pushed back in what turned out to be a testy exchange.

After a bit of back-and-forth, Stephanopoulos said Republicans were fed a “big lie” by Trump and his supporters that the election was stolen. He added, “Why can’t you say President Biden won a legitimate and fair election?”

Paul said, “Hey, George! Where you make a mistake is that people coming from the liberal side like you, you immediately say everything’s a lie instead of saying there are two sides to everything. Historically what would happen is if I said I thought there was fraud, you would introduce someone else who said there wasn’t. But now you insert yourself in the middle and say that the absolute fact is that everything I’m saying is a lie.”

Stephanopoulos said there aren’t always two sides to everything (like the election) and told Paul, “Senator, I said what the president said is a lie.”

It then devolved pretty quickly, with Paul continuing to suggest that the election was fraudulent and Stephanopoulos time and time again pointing out all the Trump lawsuits that were denied or thrown out, and how even Attorney General Bill Barr said the election was fair.

Appearing after Paul, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said, “As I listened to Rand Paul, George, I just kept thinking, man, this is why Joe Biden won.”

Axios local

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

Axios is rolling out Monday its foray into local markets — newsletters for four city areas: Tampa Bay, Des Moines, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Digital startups in metro markets have had a tough go, but Axios has a couple of cards up its sleeve. It bought Ted Williams’ Charlotte Agenda, an outlier success in the space, in December for a reported $5 million. Renamed Axios Charlotte, it will be a fifth newsletter.

The newsletters, starting with two-person reporting staffs, will be edited from Axios’ headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Axios already specializes in what founder Jim VandeHei calls “smart brevity,” with stories organized for a quick read with a summary and bullet point text.

That’s a fit with Williams’ model as he launched in 2015 — five items arriving by email first thing in the morning to give readers a quick fix of local news to begin their day. The newsletter is free, mainly supported by sponsorships, which command premium ad rates.

Where Axios has announced its staffing, the hires have been one very experienced reporter and another younger with good credentials. Here in Tampa Bay, the main author will be Ben Montgomery, whose work at the Tampa Bay Times included major investigations. The second writer, also with Tampa roots, will be Selene San Felice, a reporter for the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, where a gunman invaded the newsroom and killed five staffers.

In Des Moines, Axios hired away Jason Clayworth, a veteran reporter at The Des Moines Register.

With its pedigree, Axios Local would be worth watching anyhow. It can also be viewed as a test of whether five is a magic number for a morning newsletter. That was part of Williams’ formula (he had earlier started the similar CharlotteFive for The Charlotte Observer before going out on his own). One of the better newspaper letters I see — the Chicago Tribune’s Daywatch — always has five items, each with a photo and a link to a longer story.

New digs

A photo of the new NBC News studios in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy: NBC News)

NBC News debuted a new state-of-the-art studio inside a new and expanded Washington bureau on Sunday. The new six-floor, 80,000-square foot building will house seven studios for NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC, as well as the NBC News Channel, Noticias Telemundo, and Sky News Washington. The new studio will be host to such programs as “Meet the Press,” “MTP Daily,” “The ReidOut,” “Andrea Mitchell Reports”, “MSNBC

Live with Hallie Jackson,” “Way Too Early with Kasie Hunt,” “The Cross Connection with Tiffany Cross” and “The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart.” The bureau will also serve as a home base for special programming, including, occasionally, the “NBC Nightly News.”

The move is a tad bittersweet because NBC News is leaving its Washington home of more than 60 years. Besides hosting Washington news programs for the network, the historic studio also was the location of the second Nixon-Kennedy debate and the first appearance of The Muppets.

In a statement, “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd said, “For more than 70 years, ‘Meet the Press’ has been the place where presidents, policymakers, foreign leaders, and those in power have come to speak directly to American viewers. From every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy to international leaders like Fidel Castro and Benjamin Netanyahu to Sen. John McCain and President-elect Joe Biden’s more than 50 appearances each, these historic moments and interviews have all happened on ‘Meet the Press.’ This year, we will continue to be the gold standard of Sunday public affairs programming with the same sensibilities and mission, only now from a 21st-century studio with the latest technologies and broadcast capabilities.”

Brokaw retiring

The legendary Tom Brokaw has announced his retirement from NBC News after 55 years. Brokaw, 80, is the only anchor to have led all three of NBC’s primary news shows: “NBC Nightly News,” “Today” and “Meet the Press.” Brokaw is probably best known for anchoring the “NBC Nightly News” from 1993 to 2004. He won numerous journalism awards and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama in 2014.

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt tweeted, “Congrats to my colleague @tombrokaw on a remarkable career at @nbcnews. From the turbulent sixties, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, to 9/11 and beyond, the nation witnessed history unfold through your reporting. Thanks for your counsel and friendship and enjoy retirement.”

In a statement, NBC News said, “Brokaw will continue to be active in print journalism, authoring books and articles, and spend time with his wife, Meredith, three daughters and grandchildren.”

The Big Lead’s Ryan Phillips has a good piece: “Tom Brokaw’s Eight Greatest Moments in Broadcasting.”

Goodbye to a legend

Larry King in 2014. (Photo: Corredor99/MediaPunch/IPX)

As CNN’s Brian Stelter noted, television has lost three iconic TV hosts in the past year. Regis Philbin passed away last July. “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek died last November. And Larry King passed away over the weekend. He was 87.

King is best known for his superb interviews on “Larry King Live,” which aired in primetime on CNN for more than 25 years.

In a statement, CNN founder Ted Turner said, “Larry was one of my closest and dearest friends and, in my opinion, the world’s greatest broadcast journalist of all time. If anyone asked me what are my greatest career achievements in life, one is the creation of CNN, and the other is hiring Larry King. Like so many who worked with and knew Larry, he was a consummate professional, an amazing mentor to many and a good friend to all. The world has lost a true legend.”

According to a story by CNN’s Tom Kludt, Brad Parks and Ray Sanchez, King conducted more than 30,000 interviews on his CNN show, including every sitting president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama.

The New York Times’ Robert D. McFadden wrote, “With the folksy personality of a Bensonhurst schmoozer, Mr. King interviewed an estimated 50,000 people of every imaginable persuasion and claim to fame — every president since Richard M. Nixon, world leaders, royalty, religious and business figures, crime and disaster victims, pundits, swindlers, ‘experts’ on U.F.O.s and paranormal phenomena, and untold hosts of idiosyncratic and insomniac telephone callers.”

NBCSN to shut down

NBCUniversal has announced it will shut down NBCSN (NBC Sports Network) by the end of the year. This is a big deal for sports fans. Much of NBCSN’s live sports content — most notably the NHL, English Premier League, NASCAR and IndyCar — will be moved over to USA Network or Peacock (NBC’s streaming service). It also could lead the sports leagues (such as the NHL) to find a new home when their current deals with NBC end.

The New York Times’ Kevin Draper writes, “The move will shutter a reliable stream of revenue for the company — NBCSN brings in hundreds of millions of dollars annually — in order to help build Peacock into a bona fide competitor to other streaming services, like Netflix and Disney+, and to shore up the USA Network.”

NBCSN was started in 1995, although then it was called the Outdoor Life Network. It was later renamed Versus. In 2009, it was renamed NBCSN.

Draper reported NBCSN was the second most-viewed cable channel in 2020 behind only ESPN. It’s available in 76.6 million homes, and is on track to make more than $380 million in revenue this year before advertising.

So why make the move? It just goes to show NBCUniversal’s commitment to getting more involved in the streaming game.

Times controversy

Did The New York Times really fire an editor over a tweet in which she said she had “chills” over seeing Joe Biden’s plane landing at Joint Base Andrews ahead of his inauguration last week?

Journalist Yashar Ali tweeted that Lauren Wolfe was working for the Times on a contract basis and had her contract canceled after the tweet.

Wolfe tweeted, “Hard to fathom all the talk of ‘cancel culture’ on my timeline while I’m left without an income during a pandemic. I’m not an ideology, I’m a hard-working person who can no longer pay her bills.”

I reached out to the Times on Sunday. In an email response, Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha said, “There’s a lot of inaccurate information circulating on Twitter. For privacy reasons we don’t get into the details of personnel matters but we can say that we didn’t end someone’s employment over a single tweet. Out of respect for the individuals involved we don’t plan to comment further.”

The Times also said Wolfe was not a full-time employee and did not have a contract. She worked on a freelance basis.

Wolfe tweeted Sunday, “Please don’t cancel your subscriptions to @nytimes! It is an incredible paper filled with talented journalists. We need them and we need a thriving free press. Thank you!”

Hot type

Baseball great Hank Aaron passed away over the weekend at the age of 86. Here are three pieces about Hammerin’ Hank:

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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