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Commentary: Trump’s daily briefings are short on facts. The nightly news stepped into the breach

"NBC Nightly News"
NBC science contributor Dr. Joseph Fair, NBC medical correspondent Dr. John Torres and anchor Lester Holt, shown, discuss coronavirus issues facing the public in an episode of “NBC Nightly News” earlier this month.
(NBC News)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pleaded directly to the cameras. “Please come help us,” he asked during a live news conference Monday, appealing to healthcare workers outside the state to come to New York and help fight the worst coronavirus outbreak in the nation.

It was an extraordinary moment in a pileup of seismic events that were unthinkable just a few weeks ago.

The leader of the biggest metropolis in the United States was using the media as a critical tool in his fight to save lives. Breaking news reports, disseminated across dozens of platforms and outlets, might do what his own government had failed to do — rally critical reinforcements and supplies to combat the deadliest pandemic in modern American history. His message was broadcast on Fox News and PBS alike, CNN and Cheddar, online and local TV news affiliates in blue, red and purple states.

COVID-19 has rendered the American news media a public service again, a civic-minded conduit aimed at informing and protecting all lives, not just those in its prime ratings demographic, core audience or devoted base. The virus doesn’t care whom we vote for, hashtag, hate or support. It’s an indiscriminate killer, a common enemy. Accurate information is our best weapon in defeating this thing — whether it’s part of an effort to flatten the curve or stop hoarding toilet paper — and it’s clear Americans are seeking to arm themselves.

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When the news got real, so did the hunger for trustworthy coverage that curated critical news and information from the firehose of alarming coronavirus prediction models, real-time breaking news events, state and federal press conferences and ample medical advice.

And a staple of previous generations — the trusted nightly news broadcast — made a comeback overnight.

On a remote call from the White House, President Donald Trump joins Sean Hannity in an exclusive interview to discuss his handling of the coronavirus.
(Fox News)

ABC’s “World News Tonight” and the “NBC Nightly News” averaged about 12 million viewers for their newscasts last week. Those numbers were among the biggest totals for all network shows, according to Nielsen. That’s roughly the same as an average “Monday Night Football” broadcast, the New York Times pointed out. “World News Tonight” had its largest audience since 2000, while “NBC Nightly News” had the most viewers it’s drawn since 2005.

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Self-sequestered masses with plenty of downtime contributed to that ratings surge, of course, but many of them presumably aren’t news junkies. They simply needed to know what was happening outside — in hospitals, the White House and Wall Street — sans the political agitation of cable TV news.

For example, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt dedicated the first in a series of special reports on the COVID-19 pandemic to answering viewers’ questions about symptoms, protective measures, the economy and other front-burner issues — by putting them to a panel of experts, not pundits. Should I wear a mask? Are there any existing drugs that might work to combat this virus?

Similar explainers, like CNN’s “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction With Dr. Sanjay Gupta,” are central components of today’s coverage.

If serving a greater public need sounds basic, that’s because it is — but someone had to step in. There has been little in the way of official guidance from the White House, and the medical community has widely criticized the Trump administration for dragging its feet on early testing and containment measures.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci with "The Daily Show" host Trevor Noah
Dr. Anthony Fauci, right, explains what makes COVID-19 so dangerous and sets the record straight about available treatments during an interview with “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah.
(Comedy Central)

Trump and members of his coronavirus task force have held daily briefings at the White House, but his only national TV interviews about measures the government is taking to protect the nation — or anything COVID-19-related — have been with Fox News.

A town hall Trump did on the network was filled with misinformation that countered the advice of his own medical advisors. He has downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus, comparing it often to seasonal flu. “We’ve never closed down the country for the flu,” he said.

Trump seemed to be placing livelihoods above lives when he said he wanted the country open by Easter, a suggestion from which he walked back on Sunday. And after Cuomo begged then criticized Washington for not sending more ventilators to New York, Trump said Cuomo should have ordered the ventilators when he had the chance. Then he read the headline from an article from a right-wing outlet that’s notorious for spreading conspiracy theories — “NY Gov. Cuomo Rejected Buying Recommended 16,000 Ventilators in 2015 for Pandemic, Established Death Panels and Lottery” — as proof of the governor’s missteps.

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No wonder we’re hungry for the meat-and-potatoes journalism of TV broadcast news. As of Monday, the CDC reported that the number of confirmed cases has soared above 140,000, and more than 2,400 Americans have perished from the coronavirus — probably more by the time you read this. The president may have begun to soften his partisan rancor (it’s all relative of course), but it’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has stepped up as the figure the nation’s turning to on how to get through the crisis.

The effort to spread his message far and wide — this is serious and we must flatten the curve — has sent Fauci to odd corners of the media-verse. Last week he spoke with Trevor Noah on “The Daily Social Distancing Show.” This week he could be seen with CNN’s Jake Tapper, not to mention Desus and Mero. Polls recently showed Fauci with higher approval ratings than the president in the coronavirus response. He doesn’t seem to care about affiliation. His loyalty is to the Hippocratic oath.

Meanwhile, as Trump felt the need on Sunday to tweet an out-of-context quote that his pandemic news conferences were a “ratings hit,” health workers are responding to the New York governor’s plea — all thanks to a public service called journalism.


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