The coronavirus crisis presents a challenge for Sunday morning news shows — not only in terms of production during a time of social distancing, but in trying to set the stage for the coming week in what is a fast-moving, unprecedented national emergency.
The staff of Face the Nation, which on Sunday will feature guests including Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Scott Gottlieb and Gary Cohn, has been working remotely this past week, save for Sunday at the show’s Washington studio. The production staff will be there, but no guests will be in-studio and instead will be interviewed remotely.
The CBS staple first raised questions about the threat of the coronavirus on its Jan. 26 broadcast, when moderator Margaret Brennan asked Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) about it.
“We need to get ahead of this problem,” Cotton told her. “And given China’s record of dishonesty when it comes to these public health emergencies, we truly do need to use an ounce of prevention here rather than having to use a pound of a cure in a few months.”
The show continued to put the spotlight on the outbreak in February and early March, and, like other networks, is devoting its entire hour to the crisis for the foreseeable future. Other guests on Sunday will be FedEx CEO Frederick W. Smith and Richard Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association.
Brennan, who also is CBS News senior foreign affairs correspondent, along with executive producer Mary Hager, talked to Deadline on Friday about covering the coronavirus crisis.
DEADLINE: First off, just from a logistical standpoint, you are mostly working from home, how is that working out?
MARY HAGER: I think right now it is a challenge because there’s so much information, and so much of it is being done on email. We’ve also got Slack channels up and running. We’ve done Zoom conferencing. We’ve done larger network editorial calls, smaller network editorial calls, so it’s challenging. We’ll only be seeing each other probably Sunday for a brief amount of time.
DEADLINE: How did it work last Sunday?
HAGER: It was difficult last Sunday. Our broadcast center in New York shut down because we had a couple of reported cases and they wanted to make sure that the building was cleaned, and also to make sure that anyone who had come into contact with the people who tested positive knew about it. So a lot of the resources, a lot of the responsibility fell to the Washington bureau.
DEADLINE: Margaret, has it made the preparation process, the reporting process more difficult?
MARGARET BRENNAN: It’s been the preparation. It’s awkward. You can’t all sit in the same room and have conversations. … I’m sure everyone in every industry is going through the exact same thing related to that. And there is something different when you’re not face to face with someone.
The reporting, in terms of making calls, in terms of reading in terms of researching, we’re doing the same thing as we always do. … If anything, people right now need some curation. They need some separation of facts and clarity and editorial in a way that is different than ‘day in, day out.’ I think people are probably really overwhelmed. We’re overwhelmed by the amount of information coming in. And that’s what we’re trying to do before we get to Sunday, to lay out clearly for viewers here’s the top things you need to know on the health front to protect you and your family. Here’s what’s coming next week as best as we can ascertain from the guests that we have lined for you who have insights into the policymakers.
[Dr. Anthony] Fauci sat with us last Sunday and said he wouldn’t feel comfortable going into restaurants, personally, and two days later, the government [guidelines]. So I feel that we are thinking of our level of responsibility, in a way of trying to ask the things that viewers need to know to keep themselves safe. And also need to know to protect and plan ahead, particularly on the economic front because there is so much uncertainty out there right now. As we are in this recession, as so many banks have already come out and said, ‘We’re in the middle of a real downturn here.’ So we have those two things that we’re trying to flesh out last Sunday and certainly this Sunday as well — what changed dramatically in the course of seven days.
DEADLINE: In January you asked Tom Cotton about China and their response to the coronavirus.
BRENNAN: I knew as someone who covered the global market for a decade in the middle of a financial crisis, and someone who’s covered national security and foreign affairs, as I continue to do that the kind of outbreak that was happening in China was going to have global complications. …. Tom Cotton had been out there talking about the need. Obviously he had been briefed at that point, as a member of intelligence committee, on what was happening and he was raising red flags back then. There were people on Capitol Hill who were perhaps more kind of hawks who are raising concerns. There were health officials. It just wasn’t necessarily breaking through. And for me, I saw the connection that China is the second largest economy in the world. It is incredibly interconnected to everything that we do. And any kind of economic slowdown there was going to have an impact here. But I don’t think any of us projected the level of dramatic change that we would see on American shores as a result of this coming here in that way.
DEADLINE: What is it like for you to work from home?
BRENNAN: You know, TV, by nature is a collaborative process. And so it’s strange to not have your team around you, and you try to make up for that by being in contact. I have an 18-month old son, and a husband and a dog, and thankfully you know we can work out the childcare to be able to accommodate that. I feel bad for our friends and colleagues who don’t. But it is a challenge. I think though, we all have to kind of embrace it. You know, I love being able to take a mental health break by going and walking into the other room and giving my son a kiss and a hug. But certainly doing radio hits from my house and having my son crying in the background sometimes doesn’t work out so well.
DEADLINE: How unusual is this to cover a story that affects everyone — and hits home so personally. You have people at CBS News who has tested positive for the virus.
BRENNAN: You kind of have to remind producers and remind yourself that you need to call a little bit of a timeout and pull back a little bit from the deluge of information, and get the perspective and what we try to do on air. All the CDC guidelines that we’re reporting on apply to us too. And we are all deeply aware of the anxieties and the personal challenges people have in their own lives, what they’re feeling and adjusting to this.
I think as a team leader, Mary’s done a great job of trying to be mindful of all of those things. I spoke to the crew on Sunday after our program and I spoke to them again later in this week, saying that maybe you didn’t cover 9/11. Or maybe you weren’t around to the financial crisis, but it feels similar to that, in that it is an inflection point, and keep that in mind. When you come to work, that is the mission. That is the calling, that you have to be able to do your job well in that moment. It doesn’t mean you can’t have your own concerns and your own personal upset, because we all do. It just means in that in this moment at work, we’ve have got to be able to help walk the public through this. Because all those anxieties, some of us may feel the same thing out there in the public space. And so I think having that perspective is important.
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