Commentary: After Trump comes down with COVID-19, TV news records a surreal day in America

Marine One, the presidential helicopter, carries President Trump away from the White House  to Walter Reed hospital Friday.
Marine One, the presidential helicopter, carries President Donald Trump away from the White House on the way to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for coronavirus.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

When many Americans woke to the news that President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, cable news had already been up much of the night, scrambling to cover October’s whopper of a surprise.

The news broke just before 10 p.m. on the West Coast, when most prominent cable TV anchors, Beltway reporters and in-house doctors are usually fast asleep or just ending their day. Whether jostled out of bed like NBC’s Andrea Mitchell or powering straight through like CNN’s Don Lemon, each had to walk a fine line while reporting on the grim irony of Trump testing positive for a deadly virus that he’s repeatedly sought to downplay. Human compassion faced off with politics, well-wishing with hard, cold facts as TV news came to grips with what veteran NBC journalist Brian Williams described as a “colossal story.”

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, whose profession demands he respond quickly to medical emergencies, was on CNN within minutes of the news breaking, replete with sopping wet hair. (Heck, it’s possible he was wearing only a towel from the waist down.) He said the odds were good for Trump and that he should recover but that the news should not be “entirely unexpected” given the president’s lax use of masks.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN host Don Lemon and Dr. Leana Wen
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, from left, CNN anchor Don Lemon and Dr. Leana Wen discuss the news in the early morning hours of Oct. 2 that President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus.

To that point, the network produced the viral clip of Trump making fun of challenger Joe Biden during Tuesday’s presidential debate for wearing protective face coverings in public. “He could be speaking 200 feet away from you, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen!”

Bedheaded Washington Post newsman Carl Bernstein was all too happy to light into the president for knowingly putting the lives of Americans in danger when he failed to take decisive measures to curb the pandemic despite understanding its severity earlier this year. And why had the president attended a rally Wednesday after learning that Hope Hicks — his closest nonfamilial advisor — had tested positive, asked Anderson Cooper, who joined the CNN crew around midnight.

MSNBC’s go-to COVID-19 expert, Dr. Vin Gupta (no relation to Sanjay), was also on the air within minutes of the story breaking. He clarified, as he has for months, the seriousness of the disease, then tried, delicately, to explain why the president is among the population at higher risk for severe illness. . Trump will probably be just fine, he said, but he’s a senior so there’s a higher likelihood of him becoming very sick or dying of COVID — and then “there’s the question of his BMI” body mass index. The subject of Trump’s weight was clearly uncomfortable. He’s “obese,” Gupta said carefully, and that puts him in more danger.

U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 2 as he heads to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, after testing positive for COVID-19.
(SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The Fox News team looked shellshocked as they broke the news, repeating that the president and his staff get tested daily — which they supplemented, as Friday wore on, with a somewhat new-for-the-network emphasis on the important of mask-wearing and hand-washing. (“Apparently that wasn’t enough,” one guest said of the testing regime.)

The news outlet has been widely criticized for amplifying the White House’s dismissal of, and misinformation about, COVID-19 — almost right up to the moment the president tweeted that he and the first lady had tested positive. In a live interview with Trump earlier Thursday evening, Fox personality Sean Hannity waited a full 10 minutes before broaching the biggest story of the day as if it were a mere sidebar: “By the way, some news broke earlier this evening,” Hannity said, referring to Hicks’ positive test.
Networks tried to glean clues about who else in Trump’s orbit might have contracted the virus. Each outlet embarked on its own version of contact tracing in real time, producing flow charts and diagrams of people known to have been in close contact with Hicks or the president. At one point, MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi surmised how many people in Trump’s inner circle, and at the two rallies he attended this week, needed to be tested. It was a long list.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, third from left, waits with White House staff as President Donald Trump prepares to leave the White House Friday to go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after he tested positive for COVID-19.
(Alex Brandon/AP)

Tuesday he’d been on a plane with Melania, all of his adult children, former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, social media director Dan Scavino, Rep. Jim Jordan and prison-reform activist Alice Johnson, among others, on the way to the debate with Biden. And then there were the rallies in Minnesota and New Jersey, plus meetings on the race to confirm a new Supreme Court justice before election day. The possibilities kept unfurling with each new photo and clip of a mask-free Trump and Hicks clustered around others who were unprotected, from Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett to supporters who caught MAGA hats after a sweaty POTUS threw them into the crowd.
CNN counted at least 45 people in danger of contracting the virus from interactions with the Trump administration, including Rudy Giuliani. Like many other news outlets, the network posted their photos, yearbook style, and began moving them into columns: positive, negative, awaiting results.

By midafternoon Friday, though, the pictures on cable news had become “alarming and upsetting,” as Fox News host and debate moderator Chris Wallace put it, as the networks watched for the president to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House for the brief flight to Walter Reed.

It was, as with so much of Trump’s presidency, both unprecedented and utterly surreal; on MSNBC, Brian Williams described a video posted to Trump’s Twitter account, in which the president thanked his well-wishers and announced his departure for the hospital, as “proof of life and health” — a phrase that might be used alongside a video of an American held captive abroad.

All the major networks and cable news outlets were there long before the chopper’s blades began to whir, streaming live feeds that interrupted their regular programming. They waited, the cameras fixed on the Secret Service personnel flanking the exit and Trump’s path to the helicopter. When he finally emerged, his departure was at first obscured from the news cameras, but a White House feed was released within minutes.

It captured Trump in a suit and tie, replete with a mask, making the short walk to the awaiting craft. He flashed a big thumbs up for the camera before boarding, and as Marine One lifted off the media was left behind to continue covering the most bizarre twist in Trump’s presidency yet.