The Media Today

The Sunday shows fail to link the coronavirus and the campaign

March 2, 2020

Over the weekend, two huge news stories—the coronavirus and the 2020 presidential campaign—took significant steps forward. On the virus front, we learned of the first and second deaths on US soil, both of which came at a hospital in Washington state; at least one local scientist believes that the virus has been spreading undetected in the state for six weeks. At a rally on Friday night, President Trump called the coronavirus the Democrats’ “new hoax”; on Saturday, he “clarified” that he was referring not to the virus itself, but to “what [the Democrats] are doing.” (Trump was addressing the press from the White House briefing room. He’s been there more times in the last week than in every other week of his presidency combined.) On the 2020 front, and also on Saturday, South Carolina held its Democratic primary. Joe Biden won it by a wide margin, accumulating nearly 50 percent of the vote; afterward, Tom Steyer, who finished in third place, quit the race. Yesterday, Pete Buttigieg, who finished fourth, dropped out, too—proof, perhaps, that aggressively courting the press can only take a campaign so far.

In some quarters, we’ve seen efforts to tie these two huge stories together. Some of them—pieces on what the spread of the coronavirus could mean for campaign logistics, and on the convergent responses of bitter rivals Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg, for instance—have been smart; others, less so. (On his CNN show Saturday, Michael Smerconish asked, “CAN EITHER CORONAVIRUS OR BERNIE SANDERS BE STOPPED?”) In large part, however, the coronavirus has felt relatively siloed from campaign coverage. The two stories dominated yesterday’s Sunday shows on NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, and Fox News, yet were treated separately, for the most part. Questions on the coronavirus were largely reserved for Vice President Mike Pence, who Trump has placed in charge of the US response, and for Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services. (Trump tapping Pence was controversial given Pence’s much-criticized handling of an HIV/AIDS outbreak when he was governor of Indiana. Neither Chuck Todd, on NBC, nor Jake Tapper, on CNN, asked him about that yesterday.)

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Collectively, the five shows featured seven appearances from Democratic candidates for president. (Biden made four; Sanders made two; Buttigieg made one.) The majority of those interviews did not feature a question on the coronavirus. Tapper and George Stephanopoulos, on ABC, did both ask Biden what he’d be doing differently if he were president right now, but their questions had the air of afterthoughts—and Stephanopoulos failed to put the same question to Sanders when he interviewed him immediately after talking with Biden. (There may be nothing to that; equally, the political press doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to treating Sanders as a serious “presidential” figure.) The only other coronavirus question came from Margaret Brennan, of CBS, who asked Sanders whether it’s safe for supporters to attend his upcoming rallies on the West Coast, given the cases there. (Brennan’s show also featured an excerpt from last night’s edition of 60 Minutes, in which Scott Pelley discussed the coronavirus at the top of a conversation with Bloomberg. Also last night, Bloomberg purchased three minutes of ad time on CBS and NBC, and used it to “address” the American people on the virus. The Verge wrote afterward that Bloomberg was “cosplaying as president.”)

There are multiple possible reasons why the Sunday shows didn’t emphasize—or, in some cases, even mention—the coronavirus in their discussions with Democratic candidates. The flood of news in the Trump era has demonstrated, time and again, that swaths of the press are ill-equipped to synthesize big stories; a fear of “politicizing”—or being seen to politicize—a national crisis could also have been a concern. (In recent days, Trump and his allies have attacked Democrats and the media on such grounds; yesterday, Azar told Stephanopoulos that this isn’t the time for “partisan sniping,” because “we all need to be banding together.”) Whatever caused it, the oversight was a neat illustration of a persistent problem with our campaign coverage—that we treat it as a narrow question of who’s up and who’s down; of what issue X means for the standing of candidate Y, more than what candidate Y might do about issue X.

Asking candidates about their political standing is entirely legitimate, of course. The problem yesterday, rather, was one of proportion. By my count, Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg collectively faced 54 distinct questions across their seven Sunday-show interviews; of those, 45 pertained to campaign dynamics. (Should other moderates drop out to stop Sanders? Have Biden’s campaign staff been letting him down? Is this thing headed to a contested convention, and if so, what then?) The shape of a given candidate’s presidential campaign matters—but not as much as what they’d do once elected, particularly at moments of national crisis. Asking the Democrats running to replace Trump how they’d respond to the coronavirus—and related questions about public health, the integrity of government science, their public-information and media-relations strategies, and so forth—isn’t inappropriately political; it’s what campaign coverage should prioritize. Nor, sadly, are such questions necessarily hypothetical. It’s possible that the coronavirus—or something similar—will still be around after Inauguration Day, 2021.

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Instead, the candidates on TV yesterday morning got asked, more than anything else, to respond to kneejerk punditry that will likely be out of date by tomorrow night, once the Super Tuesday states have had their say. On NBC yesterday, Todd said that if he’d had more time with Buttigieg, he’d have liked to ask him to name the specific Congressional districts he planned to carry on Tuesday. By the end of the day, Buttigieg wasn’t running anymore, and people in Congressional districts nationwide still faced mounting fears about their health.

Below, more on 2020 and the coronavirus:

  • Benched?: On Friday, the journalist Laura Bassett wrote, for GQ, about sexist remarks that Chris Matthews—the presently embattled MSNBC anchor—made to her before she appeared on his show in 2016. Also on Friday, Matthews mistook Tim Scott, the Republican senator for South Carolina, for another Black politician—Jaime Harrison, a Democrat who is running to unseat the state’s other senator, Lindsey Graham. On Saturday, Matthews was absent from his network’s coverage of the South Carolina primary. The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani has more.
  • Stopped, not arrested: Ahead of the Democratic contests in Nevada and South Carolina, Biden claimed repeatedly that he was once arrested as he tried to visit Nelson Mandela in prison in apartheid-era South Africa. Journalists could find no evidence that that happened. Last week, Biden’s campaign conceded that he had not been arrested; on Friday, Biden himself clarified that he was temporarily “stopped” when he resisted police attempts to segregate a US Congressional delegation.
  • Take this Walz: Last month, Andrew Walz, a Republican Congressional candidate in Rhode Island, was granted a blue checkmark by Twitter—a mark of his account’s authenticity. But Walz isn’t a real person; his account was created by an anonymous 17-year-old from New York state who says he decided to test Twitter’s election-integrity protocols while he was “bored” over the holidays. CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan has more.
  • Memory tests: For CJR, Betsy Joles reports on Chinese journalists’ efforts to archive stories about the coronavirus outbreak in the country. The project—which has been informed by “an understanding among Chinese journalists of the way censorship can come into play before, during, and after the work is done”—aims to preserve a “national memory” of the outbreak.
  • Pressure on Boris Johnson: The family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who is in prison in Iran, believes she may have contracted the coronavirus, but say prison staff have refused to test her. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who worked as a project manager at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was jailed on espionage charges during what she has said was a vacation in Iran. Her case wasn’t helped when in 2017, Boris Johnson, who was then Britain’s foreign minister, said she had been “teaching people journalism” in the country. Johnson later admitted that he had made a “mistake.”
  • An impact on journalism: This year’s edition of the International Journalism Festival—an annual event in Perugia, Italy, which had been scheduled for early April—has been canceled due to the spread of the coronavirus in that country.

Other notable stories:

  • On Saturday, the Trump administration signed a truce with the Taliban, teeing up talks between competing power blocs in Afghanistan, and a planned US troop withdrawal from the country. For the Times, Juliette Love and Rod Nordland write that America’s longest war has slipped to the back of the country’s consciousness—in part because media coverage has declined. In recent years, they report, the war was “the subject of fewer front-page stories in the New York Times than any other war since World War I.”
  • Yesterday, Ben Smith, the now-former editor of BuzzFeed News, published his first piece as media columnist for the Times—about the Times, and whether it’s monopolizing the news business. “I spent my whole career competing against the Times, so coming to work here feels a bit like giving in,” says Smith, who worries that its success “is crowding out the competition.” Per Smith, the Times is now in exclusive talks to buy the makers of the hit podcast Serial. (More importantly, @buzzfeedben is now @benyt on Twitter.)
  • For the Wall Street Journal, Dan Strumpf reports that Huawei, the controversial Chinese tech giant, is trying to improve its image in the US, including by seeking more favorable media coverage. It has sought advice from well-connected figures including Marcus Brauchli, who served as executive editor of the Post and managing editor of the Journal.
  • On Friday, police in Hong Kong arrested Jimmy Lai, a media mogul who has backed the territory’s pro-democracy movement and antagonized China; Lai stands accused of “unauthorized assembly,” and of “criminally intimidating” a reporter from a pro-Beijing paper in 2017. Two other pro-democracy figures were arrested on the same day as Lai.
  • And Israel votes today in its third national elections in less than a year, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (still) clinging desperately to power ahead of his impending trial on corruption charges. Netanyahu faces allegations related to his dealings with the Israeli media. Last year, Ruth Margalit explored them for CJR.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.