By:
August 27, 2021

Good Friday, everyone. Here are some random thoughts that popped into my head as we look back at another busy week in our world and in the media.

NBC’s potent interviews

NBC had an impactful week with exclusive interviews. On Wednesday, Richard Engel interviewed Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in Kabul. Among the notable moments was Mujahid telling Engel, “There was no proof (Osama Bin Laden) was involved” in the 9/11 attacks, adding: “There is no evidence even after 20 years of war, we have no proof he was involved. … There was no justification for this war. It was excuse for war.”

Then Thursday, Lester Holt interviewed the police officer who shot and killed Ashli Babbitt during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Network news still matters, and this shows the kind of impact it can have.

Praise for PBS

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been praising the work of several reporters in Afghanistan, most notably CNN’s Clarissa Ward and NBC’s Richard Engel. Several Poynter Report readers reached out to say that I’ve overlooked the terrific work being done by PBS, especially Jane Ferguson and her reports during “PBS NewsHour.” As one reader wrote to me, “(Anchor) Judy Woodruff’s questions during her two-ways with Jane are more measured and to-the-point than those posed by some CNN anchors.” Agreed. Woodruff is one of the best in the business, and Ferguson’s work has been outstanding.

Facts over punditry

Coverage of Thursday’s explosions outside the airport in Kabul was best when news networks focused on reporting instead of the usual (and quite easy and lazy) punditry where everyone sits around and tries to figure out who to blame for these tragic deaths. There will be time for that later. In the immediate aftermath, viewers want the facts.

And they got them from the likes of NBC’s Richard Engel, CBS’s Charlie D’Agata and Nancy Cordes, ABC’s Ian Pannell, CNN’s Sam Kiley and Fox News’ Pentagon reporter Jennifer Griffin, just to name a few. Griffin was especially good working her sources in the Pentagon to provide viewers with solid information.

Where to turn in breaking news

This is not exactly surprising information, but on a day such as Thursday, with the horrific events in Afghanistan, The New York Times and The Washington Post were go-to destinations for audiences. I kept hitting refresh on the homepages of both sites and every time I did, another story with critical information came up. The homepages at all times and the work being done were beyond impressive.

And while all the TV networks did good work, I’ll repeat what I always say when there’s a major breaking news story: I instinctively go to CNN and find little reason to turn away from it. Its resources and manpower and reach make it the gold standard.

The press pressed

The questions that Joe Biden took from the media following his remarks on Thursday were especially strong. NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell, Reuters’ Trevor Hunnicutt and The Associated Press’ Aamer Madhani asked tough, but respectful and relevant questions to get it started, and set a good tone.

Fox News’ Peter Doocy closed it out by asking Biden if he bore any responsibility for the past two weeks. Biden said he did, but also pointed to the deal former President Donald Trump made with the Taliban, and that it was time to end this 20-year war.

Was Doocy’s question out of line? No, not entirely. But Thursday didn’t feel like the day to ask that particular question. There seemed to be more important questions at the moment than figuring out who should be on the receiving end of a pointed finger. Frankly, Doocy appeared to be grandstanding for his bosses and conservatives who simply dislike Biden. Doocy’s question seemed more about Doocy than the news of the day. At least that’s how I saw it.

‘A concerted effort to gaslight America’

The most ridiculous statement of the week goes to Fox News’ Kayleigh McEnany, the former White House press secretary, who said, “When President Trump was president, you didn’t see crisis after crisis. You just didn’t see it.” She said it with a completely straight face and not a hint of irony. Is she serious?

As CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote, “McEnany’s comment is no accident. It’s part of a concerted effort to gaslight America about what the last four years were really like.”

Meanwhile, here’s NBC late-night host Seth Meyers with his takedown of McEnany. Fox News should be embarrassed to have someone say that on its air. Then again, it puts McEnany on the air in the first place.

COVID isn’t going away

News about COVID-19 seems to become grimmer by the day. Here are two pieces that are depressing, but important. The New York Times’ Dan Levin with “​​In Florida, the pandemic is worse now than it has ever been before.” And, NBC News’ Ben Kesslen and Joe Murphy with “South Dakota Covid cases quintuple after Sturgis motorcycle rally.”

The story in Afghanistan will likely dominate the Sunday morning news shows, but hopefully they will all dedicate time and energy to covering a COVID-19 story that is not going away.

Can ‘Jeopardy!’ recover?

I’m still perplexed how Sony can leave Mike Richards in charge as executive producer of “Jeopardy!” after all the controversy of the past couple of weeks.

For nearly four decades, “Jeopardy!” has been one of the classiest shows on TV, mostly thanks to the late host, Alex Trebek. Then, in less than a year after Trebek’s death, the show’s reputation has gone down the sewer, mostly because of Richards and a badly mangled search for Trebek’s permanent successor. I’m starting to wonder if the show will ever fully recover.

Layoffs at Vice

So disheartening to see Vice Media Group’s layoffs on Thursday. Variety’s Todd Spangler reports that fewer than 20 staffers were let go, with the layoffs coming in North America from the Vice Digital and women-focused Refinery29 groups. Vice News was not affected. The Vice Union put out this statement.

Billion-dollar deal

Anyone else blown away that Politico was sold for $1 billion? (German publishing group Axel Springer is the buyer.) That’s billion — with a B. And that is just … wow. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton has a good breakdown of all the smart moves Politico made to become a $1 billion company.

The mess at ESPN

ESPN really made a mess of the whole Rachel Nichols/Maria Taylor controversy. As The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand wrote, “More than a year ago, ESPN did not do anything of substance about Nichols’ comments when they first found out about them. Nothing. Nada. ESPN management felt Nichols’ words were so harmful, it only made a rule that Taylor and Nichols would not appear on the air together. Passive, meet Aggressive.”

And the kicker is that it ended up losing Taylor, while Nichols is likely finished at the network. ESPN will have no problem finding someone to head up its NBA coverage, but if it had handled this right from the start, Taylor would still be there.

Today’s must-read story

The must-read story of the day is about troubling abuse allegations against one of the top tennis players in the world, Alexander Zverev. Writing for Slate, Ben Rothenberg with “‘Every Day, I Was Crying.’ Olga Sharypova says her ex-boyfriend, tennis star Alexander Zverev, abused her. Why hasn’t the tour addressed it?”

A Post correction

I must admit, I only half paid attention to the controversy involving a Gene Weingarten column in The Washington Post, in which he originally stated that Indian cuisine is “based on one spice, curry, and that Indian food is made up only of curries, types of stew.” The column was supposed to be funny, but the Post ended up running a correction that said Indian food is, in fact, quite diverse. Weingarten tried to explain himself on Twitter, but still was on the receiving end of lots of criticism.

In the end, credit the Post for turning over space to TV executive, on-air personality and author Padma Lakshmi, who wrote this devastating passage: “What’s puzzling is that editors and copy editors let his words through. Does The Post still have so little diversity among editors that this mini-screed raised no red flags? The paper issued a correction about the factual errors, but not the root of the issue: the bigotry.”

Good for Lakshmi, shame on Weingarten and the Post and shame on me for not giving it the attention it deserved when the story first broke.

The Post on the Times

OK, now let’s give The Washington Post some credit. Sarah Ellison, the excellent media writer for the Post, has a good profile of New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman in “Maggie Haberman and the never-ending Trump story.” Pretty cool that the Post would write a story that’s mostly positive about a competitor.

I found this passage really interesting: “Some competitors said they were reluctant to take time off, knowing how relentless Haberman was at working her sources. One told The Post that their sources often worried aloud: ‘If I tell you this, I’m going to have to deal with Maggie.’ (Most of her colleagues and competitors would only speak for this story on the condition of anonymity, though one fretted that Haberman is so wired-in that she would surely decipher who said what.)”

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

Correction: This column has been updated to say reporter Kelly O’Donnell works for NBC. Another network was listed in an earlier version.

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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…
Tom Jones

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