Lone figures wearing surgical masks walking through empty downtown streets. Aisles of empty grocery store shelves. Padlocked restaurant and tavern doors. Hazmat-suited medical workers holding swabs. Grim-faced public officials standing at podiums. TV journalists, hosts and pundits sitting 6 feet apart on studio sets.
This is the new landscape of cable TV news in this the week that coronavirus became real for millions of Americans.
I am sure mental health experts are correct in warning that watching cable news coverage of the pandemic can cause anxiety for some viewers. Forget the soundtrack of dire warnings, just seeing that reel of imagery playing over and over will jangle your nerves.
But there is also important information and analysis being offered by medical experts and others who are bringing facts and some clarity to a frightening situation. And just as too much cable TV in this time of chaos can be dangerous, tuning it out altogether is also a mistake. The information provided by medical experts like CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, former Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen and a host of faculty members from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health can help viewers make better choices for themselves and those they care about as they try to cope with psyche-rattling disruptions in their lives as a result of this pandemic.
It seems as if Dr. Gupta, a neurosurgeon and faculty member at Emory University School of Medicine, has been on the air day and night for the last week at CNN. From appearing as a guest on the channel’s morning shows, to doing prime-time town hall meetings with CNN host Anderson Cooper, Dr. Gupta has consistently stayed within the data and never goes into the realm of acting like he knows more than he does ― a gasbag place so many cable news hosts and analysts regularly inhabit.
CNN has most effectively used Dr. Gupta when having him answer questions from show hosts and viewers.
Typical of his thoughtful approach in that role was an exchange he had Tuesday morning with host Poppy Harlow, who asked him in the wake of the death of a child about the effects of the virus on children and pregnant women.
“One thing I want to say, Poppy, you and I and everybody else, we’re learning as we go along," Dr. Gupta said. "All the years I’ve been doing this with you, when you asked me a question, I’ve been able to typically say, ‘Based on 10 years, 20 years, 50 years of data.’ Right now, it’s two to three months, and maybe not even that. So, I want to be humble here a little bit as as we say things.”
He then went on to say that even though the World Health Organization reported the death of a child Monday night, children “do seem to be a bit more protected" against the virus and while they can get infected, it is at a lower rate and usually less severe. And, no, it does not seem that pregnant women can pass the virus to the baby.
Dr. Wen has been all over CNN and MSNBC. Between the two, she appears to have logged almost as much screen time as Dr. Gupta ― and she has been just as impressive.
One of her finest moments came this week when she reacted on MSNBC to the ignorant and reckless suggestion of California Republican Congressman Devin Nunes who said in an appearance on (where else?) Fox News, "If you’re healthy, you and your family, it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant.” (The Fox interviewer voiced her agreement.)
When asked for her thoughts on the statement by Mr. Nunes, Dr. Wen said the exhortation is “exactly the opposite of what we should be doing right now.”
That’s what I mean by clarity ― a clean, direct answer. And she comes across as authoritative, yet friendly and empathetic. Dr. Gupta comes across that way, too, something few medical experts on TV do.
One other thing you would have missed this week if you had totally tuned out cable: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo laying out the next steps of his state’s all-hands-on-deck medical effort. Like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who also was all over cable TV this week, Governor Cuomo was everything President Trump has not been. It made me feel better seeing leaders like Governors Hogan and Cuomo onscreen working with the medical establishment to battle the virus. It gave me hope.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.