NEW YORK – If there was any doubt that news during the coronavirus pandemic would fall prey to split-screen America, it was removed on Thursday.
CNN spent more than three and a half hours covering live the congressional hearing where vaccine expert Rick Bright testified that the Trump administration was caught flat-footed by the pandemic and the country faces darker days ahead. MSNBC followed it for more than two hours.
On Fox News Channel, the bigger story was the revelation that Obama administration officials sought to “unmask" the identity of Trump adviser Michael Flynn, caught in surveillance reports having discussions with Russian officials before Trump's inauguration.
That story led Fox's programs at 10 and 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m.
Shortly before Bright began his testimony, Fox was interviewing White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany about the Flynn story. She said “there are very real questions about what is the biggest political scandal in history.
“Every network should be covering this and right now it is getting scant coverage,” McEnany said.
Fox interrupted her to show Bright's opening statement and when it was done, shifted back to a waiting McEnany, who said Bright “really hadn't been paying much attention at all” before he was ousted by the Trump administration and became a whistleblower on its handling of the pandemic.
Appearing on Fox's “Outnumbered” at noon, news anchor Bret Baier described Bright's testimony as significant.
“This is potentially politically damaging for the president as he is talking about getting a handle on the health crisis and open up around the country,” Baier said. “He is not discredited easily.”
While Fox had a handful of taped reports about Bright's testimony, it never showed him live again on the network, instead directing interested viewers to a live stream. While Bright spoke, Fox interviewed New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan on the potential return of baseball, talked about an apology by NBC “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd for deceptive editing on his show and showed a few dozen demonstrators against coronavirus restrictions standing in the rain outside the Michigan capitol building.
The network said it covered all the pertinent points of Bright's testimony even without the live coverage.
To some, it's not dissimilar to times when some networks carry Trump briefings live and others shift away.
Polls — and the media — show partisan lines hardening as the pandemic stretches on. Fox's Tucker Carlson called Dr. Anthony Fauci a “buffoon" Tuesday. All three of the network's prime-time hosts — Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — led their broadcasts with the “unmasking” story Wednesday.
Hannity called it “the biggest abuse of power, corruption scandal in American history.” Repeatedly on Thursday, Fox tied presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden to the story.
“Unmasking” of people in surveillance reports is considered a routine, and legal activity in government — the Trump administration made 10,012 such requests in 2019. But they don't often become public and, in the Flynn case, Trump supporters point to it as evidence that Obama loyalists were out to undermine Trump from the start.
Midday on Thursday, websites for The New York Times and The Washington Post led with stories on the Bright testimony. There was no “unmasking” story on the Times' website, while the Post had an analysis headlined, “What is ‘Obamagate’ anyway? And how does it involve Michael Flynn?'”
The website for the conservative One America News Network didn't mention Bright shortly after his testimony ended. The Hot Air blog had four stories about Flynn among the top 20 stories on its site, and none on Bright.
The Drudge Report, which has notably turned on Trump in recent months, had a picture of Bright adjusting his face mask under the headline, “Whistleblower of Doom.”
During most of its coverage of Bright's testimony, MSNBC kept a graphic onscreen that showed a count of coronavirus cases and deaths, both in the world and United States.
MSNBC cut away from the hearing to show remarks made by President Trump as he left the White House for a trip to Pennsylvania — moments after they were shown on Fox. Trump called Bright a disgruntled employee who didn't do a good job. Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services, said “everything (Bright) complained about was achieved.”
With that, MSNBC abruptly cut away, with anchor Andrea Mitchell noting weaknesses in the administration's pandemic response.