September 28, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Politico has six sources for its story that says you can expect to begin seeing a star-studded ad campaign from the Department of Health and Human Services before the election aimed at “defeating despair” over the COVID-19 pandemic.

The campaign is mentioned in some federal government budget documents and is estimated to be worth around $250 million. Politico reports:

Senior administration officials have already recorded interviews with celebrities like actor Dennis Quaid and singer CeCe Winans, and the Health and Human Services Department also has pursued television host Dr. Mehmet Oz and musician Garth Brooks for roles in the campaign.

The public awareness campaign, which HHS is seeking to start airing before Election Day on Nov. 3, was largely conceived and organized by Michael Caputo, the health department’s top spokesperson who took medical leave last week and announced on Thursday that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Caputo, who has no medical or scientific background, claimed in a Facebook video on Sept. 13 that the campaign was “demanded of me by the president of the United States. Personally.”

Politico adds that Dr. Oz’s representative says Oz is not scheduled to be involved “at this time.” And while Politico says campaign planners have talked with Brooks, there is no confirmation that he is going to be involved.

HHS said in a statement that the campaign would be strictly informative, not partisan, and intended to “help Americans make informed decisions about the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and flu.”

One of the first words about the campaign came when HHS started looking for public relations agencies to which to make proposals. Politico published that story Aug. 31, which said:

Several weeks ago, the department sent out to a number of communications firms a “performance work statement,” which lays out what work will be expected of the winning firm. The document says that the vast majority of the money will be spent from now until January.

The document also lists the goals of the contract: “defeat despair and inspire hope, sharing best practices for businesses to operate in the new normal and instill confidence to return to work and restart the economy,” build a “coalition of spokespeople” around the country, provide important public health, therapeutic and vaccine information as the country reopens, and give Americans information on the phases of reopening.

“By harnessing the power of traditional, digital and social media, the sports and entertainment industries, public health associations, and other creative partners to deliver important public health and economic information the administration can defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery,” the document also says.

There certainly is nothing unprecedented about having celebrities deliver public service messages. History is full of instances of celebs helping to promote vaccines, for example. But when the government launches a “don’t despair” campaign worth hundreds of millions of dollars right before an election, it is no surprise that Democrats are already asking for an investigation.

Democrats are pushing HHS Secretary Alex Azar to “suspend” the contract for the ad campaign and to supply documents about the contract with the public relations firm producing it and information about how HHS will keep the campaign from being overtly political.

Here are the 10 vendors who were asked to submit proposals for the campaign. The Democrats’ letter to Azar mentions that the contract went to Fors Marsh Group, based in Arlington, Virginia. The firm’s website lists the many federal agencies that have used its work over more than 16 years, producing campaigns and research on everything from reducing alcohol abuse in the military to fighting Medicare and Medicaid waste and fraud.

PR Week says the request for proposals included this description of what was expected:

The campaign would be divided into four parts: program management and strategy and evaluation (10%); market research (10%); message and material (PSAs) production (15%); and paid and earned media distribution (65%).

The campaign would have a “large paid traditional and digital media component,” the document stated but would also include earned media and digital and social media outreach.

The digital campaign would also share content with bloggers and influencers and place HHS subject matter experts in social media events on Facebook and Twitter. It would also develop and manage HHS-led social media events.

Campaign, a website that tracks the work of public relations agencies, reports:

Ben Garthwaite, CEO of Fors Marsh, said via email that his firm “proposed an evidence-based approach built upon principles of behavioral and social science” in its bid. It also “focused on understanding and meeting the needs of the communities hardest hit by COVID-19” and bringing in partners to help with media access and purchasing power.

“Two of our key large partners include VMLY&R and iHeartMedia, which will be integral to our creative execution and media outreach strategy,” he said.

iHeartMedia, as you no doubt know, owns 850 radio stations in 153 markets across America and so is heard virtually everywhere in the country over the airwaves, online and through apps.

Will 33 million seniors get $200 drug coupons the president promised just before the election?

Perhaps in the presidential debate tomorrow night we could hear more about how the candidates propose to improve health care in a pandemic. Big issues including protection for people with preexisting health conditions, drug pricing and to what extent the government will make health insurance available are all at stake.

Then there is the matter of the president promising $200 drug discount cards to every person on Medicare within weeks.

On Thursday night, President Donald Trump surprised everyone by announcing that within the next few weeks — meaning a few weeks before the 2020 election — 33 million Medicare recipients will get coupons that the president says can be used to help pay for medications. This is all he has said about it, and the White House has not added much more to explain it. The president said:

The America First Healthcare Plan includes another historic provision to benefit our great seniors. Under my plan, 33 million Medicare beneficiaries will soon receive a card in the mail containing $200 that they can use to help pay for prescription drugs. Nobody has seen this before. These cards are incredible. The cards will be mailed out in coming weeks.

That would amount to a $7 billion program. Nobody is able to say how it would work, how the government will pay for it or how the president might offer such a benefit without Congressional approval.

As the Washington Post explained:

One White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said the idea of a drug discount card was a “last-minute thing that is still being worked out” and originated in the office of White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

StatNews reported:

The nearly $7 billion required to send the coupons, A White House spokesman said, would come from savings from Trump’s “most favored nations” drug pricing proposal. That regulation has also not yet been implemented — meaning the Trump administration is effectively pledging to spend $6.6 billion in savings that do not currently exist. The cards, he said, would be “actual discount cards for prescription drug copays.”

The so-called “most favored nation” policy is something the pharmaceutical industry has bitterly battled and will almost certainly litigate. If any discount cards go out “in weeks” as the president promised, they will be spending money that has yet to be saved and may not be saved. And then there is the question of Congress: Even if Medicare does save money somehow, it is Congress that approves spending. StatNews says:

It is unclear whether Trump’s promises on $200 credits for prescription drug coupons will come to fruition. Under the Constitution, it is Congress, not the White House, that is empowered to spend taxpayer money, and it is unclear where the roughly $6.6 billion for the program would come from. The idea has never been formally proposed or sketched out by health officials, though the New York Times reported this week that Trump officials had tried to convince the pharmaceutical industry to pay for similar cards worth $100. The drug industry refused.

A spokesperson for PhRMA, the drug industry trade group, said that “one-time savings cards will neither provide lasting help, nor advance the fundamental reforms necessary to help seniors better afford their medicines.”

New poll shows COVID-19 and “poor leadership” as top issues facing America on eve of debate

Gallup updates its polling every month on the “most important problem facing the country today.” You will often find these numbers come to life in the messages that candidates deliver because these are the topics their own polling shows will resonate with the public.

Conventional wisdom usually is that the economy is the No. 1 issue, except in wartime. But now, the economy is far from the top.

(Data from Gallup)

The coronavirus tops the list of the issues that concern Americans the most, tied with “the government/poor leadership.” Concerns about leadership rose in September while America’s concern about COVID-19 is down from July and August.

(Data from Gallup)

It is important to point out that while concerns over the judicial system rank low in this survey, the polling occurred before the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Concerns over race relations dropped some from this summer while concerns about crime doubled since August. The Marshall Project shines some light on those concerns by compiling the latest crime data for 2020:

Most types of crime decreased this summer, while serious violent crimes — such as aggravated assault and murder — increased, according to an analysis of crime rates in 27 major US cities by the Council on Criminal Justice, a criminal justice think tank. A preliminary crime report published by the FBI earlier this month shows similar trends nationwide.

It is interesting to look back four years to see what was on our minds before the last election. The economy ranked No. 1 and the more generic answer “government” was No. 2. Race relations was named top by 8% of Americans, which was way up from previous years. In July 2016, “race relations” saw a spike of interest in Gallup polling after the high-profile police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

Save our Stages is trying to rescue venues where small bands used to play

Leslie Cooper sings inside a closed and empty Back Room in New Orleans, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, as part of a livestream. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

I recommend you take a look at this piece from NBCLX that takes us inside the struggling music world where bands you have not heard of are hanging on by their toenails. The piece reminds us that the band members are the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the performance world. All of the people who support concerns big and small are out of work, too. Save our Stages, an effort by the National Independent Venue Association, is urging supporters to contact members of Congress to ask for help.

WAFF TV in Huntsville, Alabama, reported:

“If there isn’t some sort of help, federal help, the estimation is 90 percent of those venues is going to close,” Ryan Murphy said.

Ryan Murphy is the president of the Huntsville Venue Group, he says the Save our Stages Act that’s on the table in Washington D.C. is needed.

I am starting to see more newspapers and news sites get behind a rescue movement for these venues. This is an op-ed from the Missoulian in Montana.

Birds sang more softly during the human shutdown

The Mercury News brings us one of the more interesting stories of the day. Scientists have discovered that when we humans produced less noise while we were sheltered in place this spring, the birds sang more softly than when they had to compete with human-produced noise.

The sound levels of bird songs fell by more than four decibels during the shutdown; because decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, songs were about one-third softer. No longer forced to compete with human pandemonium, birds also dropped their pitch by 160 vibrations per second.

“It highlights how much of an effect that humans have on wildlife behavior — and how quickly wildlife can respond when human behavior changes,” said lead researcher Elizabeth Derryberry, an animal communication expert at the University of Tennessee.

“Nature takes over as soon as people get out of the way,” she said.

“We found clear evidence that birds responded to the reduction in noise pollution during the COVID-19 shutdown,” the researchers reported in the Science journal.

And the study found the birds had a greater vocal range: “Birds also exhibited greater vocal performance in response to being released from masking by high energy, low frequency noise. We found that birds sung at lower minimum frequencies, achieving greater bandwidth songs in newly open acoustic space.”

The way we live now

White House reporters have normal lives, too.

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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