CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is joined by colleague and veteran anchor, Wolf Blitzer, to discuss covering the unprecedented story of this coronavirus pandemic.
You can listen on your favorite podcast app or read the transcript below.
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (Archival clip): Our medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is at a hospital east of Baghdad. … Sanjay, tell us what’s going on where you are.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta (Archival clip): We’re inside an operating room, this is an unusual operating room …
Gupta: That’s from 2003, when I was embedded with a group of medics during the Iraq war and still relatively new to CNN. The anchor introducing me is probably a familiar voice to many of you – it’s my friend and colleague, Wolf Blitzer.
Blitzer (Archival clip): How are you holding up, Sanjay? … I know it’s been difficult.
Gupta (Archival clip): Yeah, these convoy rides, Wolf, that you’ve heard so much about. They can be a very challenging thing …
Gupta: Wolf and I have both been at CNN for decades, which is kind of surreal to say. We’ve been at the front lines of some of history’s most life-changing moments: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Ebola crisis.
But this pandemic has had no precedent in our lifetime.
As host of CNN’s “The Situation Room,” Wolf says this has been one of the most intense experiences of his career.
He joins me today to talk about the challenges of covering tragedies, the politicization of facts, and how he keeps going during this never-ending news cycle.
I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And this is “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
Gupta: Hey, Wolf, how you doing?
Blitzer: Hi, Sanjay. I’ve got my Clorox disinfecting wipes with me, so I cleaned off this microphone, this little table here, and you would be very proud.
Gupta: Wolf, thank you, I’ve been really looking forward to this. Let me start off by asking you how long have we, have we known each other?
Blitzer: Well, I’ve been at CNN for 30 years, and I think you’ve been with CNN for about 20 years. Is that right, Sanjay?
Gupta: Yeah. 2001, August, I started. So 19 years. Coming up on 20 years.
Blitzer: That’s amazing. I remember, of course the first major story you and I covered was in February, March of 2003, just before the war with Iraq. And we were both in Kuwait. You and me, we were covering, and I was anchoring my show from Kuwait City from a hotel balcony. And all of a sudden the war started, and the first Scuds came in. And a few of them landed about a mile or so behind where I was reporting from. And we could see this huge plume of smoke go up, and the wind was blowing towards us. And I said, “Well, look, let’s wait and see where that smoke goes.” And the next thing I knew is Dr. Sanjay Gupta, our chief medical correspondent, was in a vehicle, and you were heading to that high-end mall where the Scuds landed, and you were wearing your gas mask, and you were getting ready to report the news, right?
Gupta: Yeah, that’s, that’s exactly right. I wanted to go over there and, and see. At the time, it made total sense. Yes. I will go exactly where that big plume of smoke is, where that missile just landed in the middle of a war where there’s concerns about bioweapons. It made perfect sense, right? In retrospect, I’m thinking, “What am I doing?” Let, let me let me ask you, Wolf, about this this particular time now, covering this pandemic. You’ve covered so many stories again: these wars, Oklahoma City, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, other outbreaks. How has this been different than those?
Blitzer: Well, this has been, at least from my personal perspective, the most deadly. You know, as we speak, more than 90,000 Americans have been- have died and hundreds of thousands have been, you know, have had to suffer through coronavirus and so many more around the world. And these are people. These are wonderful people. These are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. They’re younger, they’re middle-aged, they’re older. They’re wonderful people. Many of them were looking for the prime of their lives, spending time with their families, enjoying life.
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The economy was good, and all of a sudden, it’s a disaster. We’ve got millions and millions of people who are unemployed applying for unemployment benefits. Many of them can’t even apply. What’s so heartbreaking to see, these long food lines, people waiting to just get food to put on the table to feed their kids and themselves. And who would have thought this was going to happen? And even something as simple as wearing a face mask. You know, you go out and you see all these people wearing face masks. You see people all over the place. Who would have thought that was going to be happening here? So, this has been so, so intense, so riveting, so scary, so crazy in many respects. It’s just an awful, awful situation. And I would say it’s certainly, you know, the most intense period, two months that we’ve been doing this. In all the years of my journalism, that this is the most intense.
Gupta: Wow. I mean that’s saying something given your career. And yet you do a story like this, and it’s, it’s difficult nowadays, seemingly, Wolf, to disentangle anything from politics and the more subjective nature of the story. The opinion part of the story, people weighing in from a political lens. Do you sense that as well? Is it truly impossible to disentangle just about any news story from politics nowadays?
Blitzer: Well, look, there’s the political story. There’s a political angle to what’s going on. And the country is deeply divided, as you know. I will say this, Sanjay, the article you wrote for CNN.com on your personal thoughts, … and I have it right here in front of me. You know that, “For a moment, think of the United States as a human body.” If people haven’t read that article, they should go back and look it up. And the last words you wrote, and I have it right here in front of me is … they were so powerful because I truly agree, and I truly believe what you said is true.
You said, “The country and the world are facing a serious illness. But, it is treatable. It is fixable. Let’s do this together.” You’re absolutely right. We’re going through hell right now. This is an awful, awful situation. And it’s going to get worse as these numbers get worse. And hopefully there won’t be a second wave that comes in the fall or anything like that. But I totally agree. It is treatable. It is fixable. Let’s do this together.
Gupta: When you think about your, your, your tone … I mean, do you think about your tone when you’re delivering news stories, Wolf? A lot of it nowadays has been, you know, frightening news to give. How do you balance being hopeful for an audience and being honest?
Blitzer: I do think about my tone, and I try to be as objective as I possibly can be. But sometimes, you know, the story is so painful, you know, that you’re going to see that on my face. You’ll hear it in my tone. You’ll hear it in my words. And, you know, I’ve been trying over these days to end “The Situation Room” with some images and pictures of real people who unfortunately have passed away from the coronavirus. And we tell those stories, who these people are, because it’s one thing to say, “90,000 people have died.”
It’s another thing to say, “Look at this individual. Look at this woman. Look at this man. Look at this teacher. Look at this nurse. Look at this first responder.” And you put the face on these people. It’s sad. It’s heartbreaking because you think of their families, and so often their families, they can’t even say goodbye in a hospital or they, they can’t even sometimes go to a funeral to say goodbye to their father or their mother or whatever. And, you know, you got to have some emotion when you just feel that. It’s so powerful and so, so awful.
Gupta: Science reporting in some ways I feel, Wolf, is a luxury in that we can always rely on data and science and evidence, facts, you know, to bolster up our reporting. There’s not a lot of opinion science reporting, although sometimes, you know, you do have to offer up some thoughts on things. But for you, in an era where “alternative facts” have become a term that people become familiar with, how do you think that that has affected the reporting on this pandemic, the idea that the truth and the science, that’s just another avenue of information. Here’s another avenue you could pay attention to.
Blitzer: The, the most important thing we can do, and you’re part of our fact-checking team, Sanjay, is when, when we hear government people, including the President, make statements, do a news conference and say all sorts of things, I want to come out and say, “Well, let’s, let’s check what we just heard,” and we’ll have you, we’ll have John King, we’ll have Daniel Dale, our chief fact-checker. We’ll have Gloria Borger and Dana Bash. But we’ll have doctors, in addition to you, who will come on and say, “Well, what he said just now is not true. What he said is true.” And I think that’s a real service that CNN does provide, that we’re not just listening and reporting, but we’re also fact-checking and making sure that the viewers get an honest understanding of what’s going on, not just some propaganda from time to time.
Gupta: I think it’s so important. Everything gets sort of polarized and sometimes gets minimized inappropriately. So, I really do appreciate the sort of work that you do, Wolf. How ‘bout you? I mean, even aside from the pandemic, Wolf, I think you are known to be the Iron Man at CNN and in the media business in general. I mean, you, you work hard: weekend shows, weekday shows. What was the work-life balance like for you?
Blitzer: Well, right now, I love working and I’ve been working during this, during this current pandemic seven days a week. I woke up this morning. You know, I got a little routine. I got on a treadmill for an hour, and I watched the news on television as I’m getting a good little sweat. But I’m excited because I know that, you know, when “The Situation Room” gets on the air at 5 o’clock, I’m going to be ready to report the news as fairly and as responsibly, as accurately as I possibly can. And the viewers will be grateful, and I’ll be grateful. But it’s not as if, if I took a day off or, you know, or a weekend off, I could go to a restaurant. Can’t do that. It’s not as if I could go watch my Washington Nationals play a baseball game. I can’t do that. It’s not as if I can, you know, go see my family down in Miami because I’m not going to get on a plane right now and I’m not going to be able to do that. And whenever I used to complain to my dad about how hard I was working, he would always say, “Listen, son, there are harder ways to make a living than what you do. So, just go ahead and enjoy your job.” That’s my attitude.
Gupta: You know, it’s my attitude, too. Despite the long days and frantic research, I’ve always tried to follow Wolf’s lead. And I want to thank Wolf again, not only for his hard work but also for being a constant source of inspiration for me and everyone else at the network.
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We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.
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