In coronavirus coverage, a tricky balance between scrutiny and amplification
By Jon Allsop
Remember when the Sunday shows were filled with Democratic presidential candidates, or Republican lawmakers spreading debunked claims about Trump and Ukraine? In recent weeks, as the coronavirus crisis has taken hold and relegated recent huge stories to the realm of distant memory, administration officials—Mike Pence, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and others—have (often virtually) made the rounds. Yesterday, it was the turn of Peter Gaynor, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, who appeared on ABC, NBC, and CNN. On the latter network, Jake Tapper tried to pin Gaynor down on the number of protective masks the federal government has acquired and sent out to hospitals. Gaynor wouldn’t even venture an estimate. “You understand though, of course, that the inability of the federal government to give a number in terms of masks alarms people,” Tapper said. “Without a number, it doesn’t fill people with confidence.” Tapper then pressed on other urgent supply issues, to little avail; “Again,” he said, “nobody’s doubting the sincerity of your effort, but the lack of numbers is alarming.” Wrapping up, Tapper wished Gaynor well. “Please let us know if there’s anything we can do to help,” Tapper said. “God bless you, and good luck in this.”
These days, it’s common for interviews with officials to end on a warm note; on NBC yesterday, for instance, Chuck Todd told Gaynor, “We’re all pulling for you.” But that doesn’t mean the preceding interviews haven’t been tough. Increasingly, journalists interacting with public officials must strike a difficult balancing act—between aggressive scrutiny of missteps and misstatements, which is always our job, and the effective communication and amplification of government public-health guidelines, which has rarely, if ever, felt so urgent.
There’s a lot to scrutinize right now, with the availability and distribution of crucial medical supplies (rightly) at the tip of the iceberg. Trump’s regular press briefings—which, at the very least, can be said to exist—continue to absorb a lot of our attention, and judgment. (Last week’s suggestions that his tone had turned a corner proved, unsurprisingly, to be premature; some observers, including Margaret Sullivan, of the Washington Post, have argued that the briefings are harmful, and that networks should stop carrying them live.) Also, last week, we found out about senators—including, prominently, Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina—dumping stocks prior to the coronavirus market slide. Yesterday, we learned that a first senator, Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, tested positive for the coronavirus—the same day he used the Senate gym and pool. (On Twitter, Paul accused Seung Min Kim, a Post reporter, of making the “false and irresponsible” insinuation that he used the facilities after he received his test result.) Some journalists asked why the Senate gym is still open; others asked how Paul, who says he is asymptomatic, can get tested when many symptomatic Americans can’t. Also yesterday, Senate Democrats blocked the progress of a massive coronavirus stimulus/rescue package, arguing, among other things, that it’s insufficiently pro-worker. This morning, Politico called the situation “a $1.6 trillion game of chicken.” And all this is just in DC. The decisions of governors, mayors, and other officials across America are driving reams of coverage, and scrutiny, too.
At the same time as asking politicians and bureaucrats tough questions, the press must boost certain aspects of their messaging right now—about washing hands, respecting lockdown orders, and so on. The twin imperatives, while unusual, aren’t necessarily contradictory. Nonetheless, there are challenges to navigate here, not least around trust. “We have one shot and we have to have a huge degree of trust that what we’re being told is accurate about the need to sacrifice,” David French, a senior editor at conservative site The Dispatch, told Todd on NBC yesterday. “The government is asking for that trust in a very low-trust time in American history.” The media, needless to say, is not exempt from this dynamic. Calling into question the effectiveness of the administration’s response—while assuring news consumers of the righteousness of much of its medical advice—is a tough needle to thread in a credible way.
Yet thread it we must. The coronavirus is requiring everyone to pull together in a spirit of cooperation, but the state must lead that effort, and the media must keep the state honest. Yesterday, Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, said on ABC News, where he is a contributor, that he’d like reporters to ask fewer questions on equipment-provision failures, and instead look to the future, and what can be done next. Martha Raddatz—who, like Tapper, had just grilled Gaynor, of FEMA, on such failures—pushed back on Christie. “You say it’s water under the bridge, but we’ve got a crisis right now because of that water under the bridge,” she said. “They don’t have enough masks, they don’t have enough ventilators. And we’re getting mixed messages out of the White House all the time.”
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- Notable cases: In addition to Paul, two members of the House of Representatives—Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, and Ben McAdams, Democrat of Utah—also have the virus. Over the weekend, McAdams was admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties; he said last night that he’s recovering. Elsewhere, the Niagara-Gazette reported yesterday that Harvey Weinstein, who is now in a prison outside Buffalo, New York, has also tested positive for the virus.
- Meanwhile, at Fox: Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, writes that Lachlan Murdoch, son of Rupert and CEO of Fox Corporation, could have stopped hosts on Fox News from downplaying the threat of the coronavirus, but “wasn’t paying much attention”; allies of Lachlan Murdoch told Smith that even they “no longer think he has the political savvy or the operational skills his job demands.” Four staffers who work at Fox News’s New York headquarters have tested positive for the virus.
- The personal cost: On Thursday, Larry Edgeworth, who worked in an equipment room at NBC News in New York, died after testing positive for the coronavirus. Edgeworth, who was 61, had underlying health issues; on air, MSNBC hosts Andrea Mitchell and Rachel Maddow choked up as they paid tribute to him. And over the weekend, David Lat, who founded the legal blog Above the Law and who has been tweeting about his experience with the coronavirus, entered critical condition in hospital.
- “Psychological distance”: CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke with photo expert Fred Ritchin about the image choices news outlets have been making in their coverage of the virus. “Rather than ask questions of events, the images often just show a fragment of what’s there without putting it in context,” he says. “Initial photos depicted the danger as being far away, as opposed to raising questions of what’s going on among us.”
- “Domoscene conversion”: In Britain, the Sunday Times reported yesterday that Dominic Cummings, the controversial top aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, initially favored letting the coronavirus spread among large parts of the population, before he underwent a “Domoscene conversion” and backed tough lockdown measures. Sources’ summation of Cummings’s old attitude—“protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”—went viral. Johnson’s office later called it “a highly defamatory fabrication,” and accused the Sunday Times of publishing other “invented” quotes, too.
- In brief: Also in Britain, audio in which a London man parodied viral misinformation on WhatsApp by claiming that the government was cooking the world’s biggest lasagna… was taken seriously and went viral on WhatsApp. In South Africa, citizens caught spreading “fake news” about the coronavirus risk a fine or jail time. And in New York, the New Yorker—which last week scrapped Goings On About Town in the absence of goings on about town—is bringing the section back with listings that can be enjoyed from home.
Other notable stories:
- Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, spoke with George Miller, the director of Mad Max, to find out how he makes climate fear compelling in his films. Miller “never sets out to make a climate movie,” Pope writes. “But what a journalist can see—and envy, and strive to equal—is his deep engagement with the natural world.” Also for CJR, Tom Kizzia explores climate coverage in Alaska, which “rarely seems to have much impact.”
- Mark DeSaulnier, a Congressman from California, is in critical condition in hospital after fracturing a rib and subsequently contracting pneumonia. (He tested negative for the coronavirus.) In Congress, DeSaulnier formed a working group focused on the problems facing local news, and introduced bills designed, respectively, to help outlets transition to nonprofit status and bargain with big tech. Last year, he wrote about his efforts for CJR.
- Last week, Kentucky’s Republican-controlled legislature sent Andy Beshear, the state’s Democratic governor, a bill that would allow local officials to publish legal notices on their websites, and not in a newspaper. Such notices—which often are an important revenue source for smaller papers—have come under threat in other states, too, such as Florida.
- Austonia, a new outlet covering Austin, will debut this week—it’s starting out as a daily newsletter, and plans to launch a website in the weeks to come. The venture was founded by Rich Oppel, a former top editor at Texas Monthly and the Austin American-Statesman, and Mark Dewey, another veteran of the Austin media scene.
- In 2017, a group of European news outlets, including Le Monde, published an investigation into “cum-ex,” a convoluted financial scheme that cost multiple countries billions of dollars. Last week, a court in Germany convicted two former bankers of involvement in the scheme—laying the groundwork for other, similar prosecutions.
- And the Kraft family, which owns the New England Patriots, took out a full-page ad in the Tampa Bay Times to say thank you to Tom Brady, the Patriots legend who just signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “To the Buccaneers fans and Tampa Bay community—take care of him,” the Krafts wrote. “You got a great one.”