Media news and perspective, from Steve Krakauer.
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July 9, 2020

Dateline: The day the Supreme Court said we might see Trump's taxes
Watching tonight...
  • NBC said their contributor had COVID-19, but he didn't 
  • Everyone in the media bubble is talking about "The Letter"
  • Don Lemon's divisiveness is damaging to CNN
  • Two new 7pm hosts at NBC's cable channels
  • Rob Lowe launches new podcast
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NBC tracked their medical expert's "coronavirus battle" - but he never had it

"Joining me now [is] virologist Joseph Fair, who recently recovered from COVID-19 himself," said Chuck Todd on Meet The Press on June 14. "Dr. Fair, let me start with you because I would like you to share a little bit about your recovery from COVID-19. What should Americans take away from your experience?"

"I don't have any of those underlying conditions, I'm 42 years old. So you wouldn't think, clinically, that I would be one of those people that would get so very ill. I can say that that seven to eight days prior to me hospitalizing myself when I was doing the self-treatment, that was the worst I've ever felt. I probably spent 23 out of 24 hours in bed," said Dr. Fair, who joined NBC as a science contributor in March as the coronavirus pandemic hit. "Those people that are young and think they're invincible or people that just don't think it's going to affect them that greatly even if they do get it, I can say that my own experience was the complete opposite."

What Todd didn't tell the audience that day, and Dr. Joseph Fair didn't offer up either, was that Fair had already had at least five negative coronavirus tests. Two days ago on Twitter, Dr. Fair revealed the results of his antibody test - negative again. He never had COVID-19. And that's just the beginning of the troubling story.
In this newsletter on June 17, I detailed the full backstory of this strange media situation - from the changing symptoms as his TV appearances went on, to NBC and MSNBC initially telling viewers the caveat about the negative tests, to ultimately abandoning that key part of the story. 

The circumstances were odd to begin with - Dr. Fair appeared on the Today show, and told his story. As a virologist and coronavirus expert, he took every precaution he could. But he said he likely contracted coronavirus through his eyes on an airplane. "If it can take me down, it can take down anybody," he said in that May 14 appearance.

Dr. Fair has a long history as a "virus hunter" and virologist - and seems to have as long a history of getting publicity. On Meet The Press, he described the first week of supposedly having COVID-19 as "the worst I've ever felt." In replying to a Twitter follower this week, he said "It was only the second time I have been hospitalized in my life and I am someone who rarely gets ill."

But a colleague and fellow TV coronavirus expert, Laurie Garrett, who frequently appears on CNN, tweeted in May that Dr. Fair, "has been in many epidemics, contracted #Ebola in West Africa." He contracted Ebola? 

While I couldn't find any reference to Fair surviving Ebola, I did find Fair featured in a book about Ebola, "Crisis in the Red Zone," published just last year. The book describes Fair in 2006 when he was a graduate student, and it describes a time he "got sick" - very sick. "A devout Catholic, Fair asked a priest at the center to give him his final confession and the last rites," writes author Richard Preston. "'I think I'm passing,' Fair whispered." In the end, Fair took some antibiotics and made a miraculous recovery. But COVID-19 was worse than this experience?

In 2014, Fair was profiled in the Washington Post, under the headline "A virus hunter faces the big one: Ebola." It began: "Joseph Fair hunts viruses. That’s his thing. The 37-year-old American loves chasing dangerous pathogens, studying them in secure labs or searching for them in jungles where the microbes lurk." The whole story details Dr. Fair's work with Ebola - no mention of the supposed near-death experience from 2006, however.

And now we know Dr. Fair never had coronavirus, despite nearly a dozen appearances on NBC and MSNBC where he talked about having it or recovering from it. In the end, NBC's viewers were left with two very alarming - and false - impressions. First, that an expert virologist can take every precaution but can still catch COVID-19 through his eyes. False. Second, that tests can be so untrustworthy that you can have multiple negative tests and still have coronavirus. Craig Melvin described them as "false negative tests" in that initial report on May 14. Hoda Kotb said, "every time it came back negative, but clearly you have it." False. Anti-science. And truly damaging.

In articles and TV segments, millions of NBC readers and viewers are today left with the impression that Dr. Joseph Fair, a 42-year-old "virus hunter" (with the handle @CureFinder on Twitter) came down with a case of COVID-19 through his eyes that was so severe he was hospitalized in ICU for several days and that at least five "false negative" tests couldn't trace it. This pandemic is scary enough without this false storyline introduced into the news picture. 

So what really happened? We don't know. I asked several medical experts, and it's unclear what the story really is. In one later MSNBC appearance, Fair discussed having a "panic attack" right before going to the hospital. But we don't know. Fair did not respond to repeated requests for comment. NBC has declined to comment on the record throughout the past month.

Fair has been regularly appearing on NBC and MSNBC, but has not been on the air since his tweet revealing the antibody test results on Tuesday. Shortly after I began making inquiries related to this story, Fair appeared on the Today show June 17 and was described as having recovered from a "possible covid-19 related illness." In that appearance, he said he would "absolutely" keep viewers posted on the results of the antibody test.

So far, there have been no on-air corrections. Or online -this NBC News story is still uncorrected, for example. The Today show website wrote a brief story, where they now describe what he had as a "severe illness."

For his Twitter followers, and likely NBC's viewers, many still believe Fair had coronavirus, despite the fact that he clearly didn't. Said one: "Your experience only makes me more determined to stay quarantined. We still don't have a clear path on testing, accuracy, treatments and most of all any understanding on why some are so impacted and others are not!"

In the insular media bubble, everyone can't stop talking about "The Letter"

"The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides."

Does this sound like the kind of message that would anger the progressive liberals in the media and on Twitter? 

This message is the crux of "The Letter," an open letter on "Justice and Open Debate" which was published in Harper's magazine this week, and signed by approximately 150 individuals who identify as members of the left. The signers are an interesting group - JK Rowling (Harry Potter) and Margaret Atwood (The Handsmaid's Tale). Colleagues who were on opposite sides of the Tom Cotton op-ed debate (Bari Weiss and Michelle Goldberg). Malcolm Gladwell. Fareed Zakaria.

This ended up being controversial. Smeared first as a "cancel culture" treatise, those who claim cancel culture doesn't exist were mad about these well-off journalists and professors who would dare give it attention. Then there was the "guilt by association" element - 'well how can you sign something that was also signed by this bad person?!' It became a big controversy at Vox, where a senior journalist Matt Yglesias was among those who signed the letter, and Emily VanDerWerff published her own letter in response. Ezra Klein, the founder of Vox, sent what seemed like a subtweet. It was a lot of drama! Gladwell put the whole thing succinctly: "I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter."

This whole debate about "The Letter" is both important and not important - and it reminds me of "The Dress." The Dress was a BuzzFeed story published five years ago that was an optical illusion. Some saw blue and black, while others saw it as white and gold. Was the letter a bunch of whiny elitists complaining about a non-existent problem, or was it a powerful statement about a growing issue in American culture? No matter how much you argue with the other side, they'll never see anything different. Instead of an optical illusion, it’s an intellectual illusion.

But what's important about The Dress is there is a right answer - the dress manufacturer said the dress was blue and black. Just like with "The Letter" there is a correct answer too. Some may not like the phrase "cancel culture" but to deny there is a climate now of overreacting to "microaggressions" or perceived bias by firing and, well, cancelation, is to deny reality. It's not about the 150 people who signed the letter - they'll be fine. It's about these "innocents" like Yascha Mounk recently documented - caught in the crossfire of a culture war they did not want to be a part of.

Don Lemon's descent into divisiveness is hurting CNN

Perhaps the best profile of CNN anchor Don Lemon ever written was by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in GQ five years ago - the opening story about Lemon's insistence that "sorbet" is pronounced "sor-bette" is hilarious and illuminating. "Don Lemon is human, and Don Lemon is not perfect, and Don Lemon is so much more fine with his humanity and his imperfection than anyone I’ve ever met," she concludes.

But that was the pre-Trump Don Lemon. Trump Era Don Lemon has not been as enjoyable. There was the time on Jamie Weinstein's podcast two years ago when he said "even I as a Democrat" before catching himself and saying "even I as someone in the middle." There was the awful segment from January featuring Rick Wilson and Wajahat Ali where they cackled their way through a segment bashing supposedly uneducated Trump supporters.

Then there was this week, which has been particularly divisive and embarrassing. Lemon's interview with the actor Terry Crews was long and painful. Crews, trying to have a nuanced conversation about the principles behind Black Lives Matter, and Lemon, trying his best to tar Crews as uneducated on the topic. It was Lemon at his most arrogant and ignorant.
Yesterday, in the wake of this segment and others like it this week, a clip from 2013 started circulating - back from the pre-Trump years of Don Lemon. In it, Lemon delivers a long monologue to the Black community - a nuanced and interesting segment, the kind that made him one of the more unique voices on cable news for many years. "Pay close attention to the hip-hop and rap culture that many of you embrace," he said. "A culture that glorifies everything I just mentioned, thug and reprehensible behavior, a culture that is making a lot of people rich, just not you. And it's not going to."

Tucker Carlson took Lemon to task for this hypocrisy last night - the evolution over these few years to the condescending host he is today.

It's unfortunate, and it hurts CNN. I enjoyed working with Don, and he has a staff that is full of talented people. But the current dismissiveness of anything resembling dissent on his show - any straying from the company line - makes his program one of the more divisive on CNN, and, frankly, one of the more boring too. Don Lemon's biggest talent was his curiosity - it allowed his viewers to relate to him. Segments like the interview with Crews show the curiosity is sadly gone.

NBC appoints two new 7pm hosts to serve two vastly different cable news audiences

Joy Reid's rumored 7pm ET show on MSNBC is official now, as the New York Times broke the news on The ReidOut launching July 20. In announcing the new show, Michael Grynbaum nodded to the controversial and homophobic comments on Reid's old blog, which she originally claimed had been the work of a hacker. "It’s two years ago, so I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about that old blog," she told Grynbaum. "What I genuinely believe is that I truly care about the L.G.B.T. people in my own life. I care about being a good ally, a good person, and making sure that my voice is authentic, that I can make a difference."

Grynbaum left it there - next week, I'll dig in more in Fourth Watch on this topic and where the facts stand now.

But also announced this week was another 7pm show, on financial cable news channel CNBC - Shepard Smith would be joining nearly a year after leaving Fox News.

Shep Smith was a true Fox News original, having been with the network for 23 years before his abrupt exit in October last year. "Smith’s legacy at Fox News will not be as part of any political resistance. He didn’t have time for that. What will be remembered most is likely to be his style of tempering serious journalism with a winking lightness about the whole thing, a knowing acknowledgment that most of the time, this cable news thing is really not that serious after all," I wrote at the time for the Washington Examiner magazine.

Some hardcore Fox fans soured on Smith before his exit, because of a perceived dislike of President Trump. But Smith is a great news host - someone unique in the space. CNBC is in the middle of a transformation, and with Shep at the helm, it gives NBC a counterbalance to Joy Reid at the same hour. Smith won't start until the fall - as the general election heats up - but it's a great hire for NBC and an interesting look at where CNBC may be heading as it competes with Fox Business, and the rest of the cable news landscape.
WATCH IT... I'll write more about the media's hysterical and often-inaccurate coronavirus coverage on Sunday, but for now, watch this supercut from Tom Elliott on our media going to great lengths to ensure viewers do not feel happy about a COVID-19 death rate that isn't skyrocketing.

HEAR IT... I enjoy Rob Lowe the actor and find Rob Lowe the person to be a really unique and interesting voice in Hollywood, so I'm giving his new podcast a chance. The first episode with Chris Pratt took a while to get going, but hang around for some funny "Parks & Recreation" stories.

READ IT... I knew very little about actress Thandie Newton. But the mark of a fantastic magazine profile (my personal favorite form of print journalism) is making you care immensely about a subject you never cared about before. And this lengthy, revealing, fascinating interview by E. Alex Jung with the Westworld actress is an absolute must-read.


- Really interesting read in the Hollywood Reporter on former comedian and TV host turned media mogul Byron Allen, on his plans to buy CNN and more.

- TheWrap breaks the news that while CNN and the New York Times may be tacitly endorsing the Facebook boycott, they continue advertising on the platform themselves.

- Outkick's Bobby Burack has a great piece on the pros and cons with the massively-different, soon-to-launch ESPN Radio line-up.

- The Daily Beast has a fascinating story about a Middle East propaganda outlet that got right-wing digital publications to publish pieces by a fake person.

- The 1619 Project media domination continues, as Nikole Hannah-Jones teams with Oprah Winfrey to bring it to life on TV and in film.

- Jane Coaston at Vox has a really great interview with Sen. Tim Scott, on criminal justice, police reform, race and much more.

- I will never not recommend a Kanye West interview, so here is a great one with Forbes.

 Remember Sleeping Giants - the social media campaigners who try to get companies to stop advertising on Fox News and other right-leaning media organizations? Well apparently the two founders are splitting up after the female co-founder accused her white male co-founder of not considering her "an equal."

⏩ Tomorrow on Fox Nation, Lawrence Jones (a rising star at Fox News) is interviewing NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, in what looks to be a news-making interview.


In Sunday's newsletter, the return of two content sections in Fourth Watch - Two Truths and a Lie (Microaggression Edition) and "Blocked" (featuring the first of four new stories of people who have blocked me on Twitter)...


Former CNN host Reza Aslan learned an important lesson about punctuation this week on Twitter. It couldn't come at a better time for the Trump campaign - "Sleepy Joe" wasn't really catching on anyway...
Thanks for reading, back Sunday...

- Steve Krakauer

[Know someone who would dig Fourth Watch? Please forward here!]
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