By:
October 2, 2020

In the immediate hours after President Donald Trump announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus, we saw the very best of what 24/7 news organizations had to offer. The coming days could see some of the worst.

This is a dangerous time for the media.

On one hand, news outlets are trying to be distinctive while covering what could be the biggest news story of a year already overloaded with news. On the other hand, so much is still unknown and information could be hard to come by. The intersection where news outlets want to be relevant and simply don’t have a ton of information could lead to a crash.

The key will be reporting with facts instead of filling time and space with conjecture. And that will start with the White House being transparent. That could be an issue. History tells us that whenever a president — whether it be FDR or Eisenhower or Kennedy or Wilson or Reagan — is ill, the White House often is not very forthcoming with information.

During an appearance on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” presidential historian and Vanderbilt University professor Jon Meacham said there is reason to be skeptical of the Trump White House.

“We live in the most complicated of global times,” Meacham said. “We’re in the homestretch of the existential election and we are dealing with, without prejudging it, a White House for whom straightforward reporting and straightforward, transparent truth-telling is not a defining characteristic.”

The headline on the analysis piece by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump was “Years of the White House Obscuring Health Information Add Instability at a Tricky Moment.”

So what are we to do?

“Please keep an eye out and hope for transparency,” Meacham said.

With that in mind, here are some of the other observations of the media coverage of Trump testing positive for COVID-19:

“Good luck with that”

Transparency from the White House? Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan isn’t hopeful. She writes, “Once upon a time, when a president or his press secretary made a statement on an crucially important matter, it was simply considered news. And reported as such. The time for that is long past. The stakes are higher than ever, and the demand for proof should be, too. Otherwise, Americans reasonably will come to an unavoidable conclusion: If the statement is from the president’s tweet, or from the press secretary’s mouth, there’s no reason to think it’s true.”

Speaking of which …

Sullivan is hardly alone in her skepticism. CNN’s Chris Cillizza listened to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Friday, who said, “(Trump) is in the residence now, and in a true fashion he’s probably critiquing the way that I’m answering these questions.” Meadows added that Trump asked Friday morning about the economy and jobs report.

Cillizza wrote, “Here’s the problem: We have no way of actually knowing if Meadows is telling the truth. About Trump’s health, about what the White House knew, and when, about senior adviser Hope Hicks’ positive test on Thursday morning — about any of it. Why? Because this is a White House that, from the moment Trump became a presidential candidate, has made the erosion of truth and facts its central mission.”

Don’t trust that guy

Sometimes it’s not only important to point out who to trust on a story such as this, but who not to trust. Credit Fox News’ Chris Wallace for doing just that during an appearance Friday on “America’s Newsroom.” Anchor Sandra Smith, touting an exclusive interview, reported that White House coronavirus advisor Scott Atlas said he expected President Trump and first lady Melania Trump to make a “complete, full and rapid recovery.”

But Wallace was quick to point out that Atlas was not a reliable source.

“I’m going to say something and, folks, I’m just trying to give you the truth,” Wallace said. “Dr. Scott Atlas is not an epidemiologist, is not an infectious disease specialist, he has no training in this area at all. There are a number of top people on the president’s coronavirus task force who have had grave concerns about Scott Atlas and his scientific bona fides. I know I’m going to get a lot of pushback from this. I very much hope everything he says is true. One, he can’t know, because the president is just in the earliest stages of this. And two, I understand the desire of the White House and its political people to try to talk this down, and I’m not certainly trying to talk it up and I hope and pray the president is fine.”

He then added, “Follow the scientists. Listen to the independent people who do not have a political ax to grind, and I frankly don’t think Scott Atlas is one of those people.”

Best answer

OK, maybe this wasn’t the best answer of the day, but it was a really good one. During an appearance on “MTP Daily,” MSNBC’s Geoff Bennett was asked a question about Joe Biden’s future campaign plans and Bennett gave an answer that is NEVER a bad one when he said, “That’s a good question for which I really don’t have a good answer to, I’m going to be honest with you.”

Better to say “I don’t know” than make something up.

Cranking out the journalism

Moments after President Trump tweeted out that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman co-bylined a quick story with colleague Peter Baker and continued to update that story throughout the night and into late Friday morning. Throughout that time, she then wrote or contributed to seven pieces. Many journalists are working around the clock on this huge story. CNN’s Anderson Cooper, for example, was on the air at 3 a.m. Friday. As CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out, Cooper probably had not been on at that hour since the 2016 election.

More observations from the Trump-coronavirus coverage

  • The cable news networks — CNN, MSNBC and Fox News — have really stepped up at this time, especially CNN and MSNBC. Their reporting has been responsible. Their panel discussions have been informative and not hyperbolic. Their questions and concerns represent what a good chunk of America is asking and worrying about. These are the moments when 24/7 cable news outlets have to be at their best, and, so far, they have been.
  • Mediaite smartly points out that reporter Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg might have been the one who broke the lid off this whole story and sparked Trump to reveal he had tested positive. It was Jacobs who broke the story that Trump aide Hope Hicks had tested positive for the coronavirus. Only after Jacobs’ story did the White House confirm Hicks had tested positive and that she had traveled with Trump. After that, Trump was tested and then revealed that he had contracted COVID-19.
  • Is it insensitive for news outlets to talk about things like the impacts on the election, the debates and the campaigns when the president is sick? Of course not. We are a month away from the election. Already the second scheduled presidential debate on Oct. 15 appears in jeopardy. The democratic process goes on. So it’s not irresponsible or insensitive to delve into those topics.
  • Speaking of which, writer John Hudak of the Brookings Institution told CNN that Vice President Mike Pence should be pulled off the campaign trail. “We cannot risk the health of the vice president while the president is sick. … Every day he’s out on the campaign trail, not only is he putting his health at risk, but the continuity of the government at risk.”
  • Having said that, discussions about succession plans ARE over the line. Yes, the president has tested positive for the coronavirus. Informing the public what happens if Trump cannot perform his duties for a few days because of the illness is fair territory, but already moving ahead to the grimmest scenario is too much at this time.
  • The Sunday morning news shows will be must-see. The promising thing about shows such as “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation,” “This Week” and “Fox News Sunday” is they tend to have responsible discussions, but guests will especially be crucial this week. This is no time for spin and dancing and ducking. The networks need to avoid inviting anyone who traditionally uses the Sunday appearances to play politics and mislead the American people. This is a time when only the most reliable and trustworthy guests should appear.
  • Finally, a few written pieces to call to your attention today: The Washington Post’s Lenny Bernstein, Laurie McGinley, Joel Achenbach and Lena H. Sun with “Trump’s Age, Immune System and Underlying Health Problems Will Chart His Battle Against Covid-19”; The New York Times’ Peter Baker with this helpful piece: “Trump Infected: What We Know and Don’t Know”; Politico’s Michael Kruse with “‘Weakness Was the Greatest Sin of All’: How a Lifelong Need to Seem Strong Made Trump Vulnerable”; and CNN’s Brian Stelter with “Journalists Who Work at the White House Are Testing Positive for Covid-19.”

Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.

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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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  • How can this have been the best of journalism? A statement from the president, a doctor’s note saying he had confirmation — from who, by what? — and a world of media outlets were off and running with headlines that still have yet to be fact-checked as true. It would not be the first time a political party asked its leader to step aside in the depths of her unpopularity so another could run (Margaret Thatcher) and win (Johnson). The basic tenets of journalism — explaining where your information comes from, how it was fact-checked, and why it can confidently report it as fact — are out the window on this one. A nod to those who at least reported ‘the president says he tested positive,’ instead of ‘the president tested positive.’