In November 1979, days after 52 Americans were taken hostage in Iran by revolutionaries, ABC News launched a late-night news show focused exclusively on the crisis. The program — eventually called “Nightline” and hosted by Ted Koppel — remained on the air five nights a week even after the hostages’ release in early 1981, evolving into an enduring TV news franchise. It’s still an ABC cornerstone today.
Longtime television journalist David Hatcher ’84 is helping produce a new ABC News show that, like Nightline, is born of a crisis. “Pandemic: What You Need to Know,” airs on most ABC stations at 1 p.m. Like “Nightline,” its reporting offers Americans straight-talk information — something more rare today than in Koppel’s era, thanks to the rise of partisan-driven cable and digital news. Each show features Dr. Jen Ashton, ABC’s chief medical correspondent, delivering Covid-19 updates and sorting fact and fiction about the disease. Show segments typically steer clear of the political battles over the virus to focus on how to help average Americans battle the crisis and care for children at home, manage wage cuts and unemployment, and navigate other challenges.
Hatcher joined ABC News as an executive producer in late February, just as the Covid-19 outbreak was emerging as a serious threat. A 30-year veteran of local television news who also had led a morning news program for digital pioneer BuzzFeed, he arrived with a big, yet altogether different assignment: launch morning news programming for the network’s internet streaming channel, ABC News Live. But even before he could meet all the key players in ABC’s Times Square studio, his job changed; the network asked him and others from the streaming service and the “Good Morning America” show to create an hourlong program for the broadcast network.
“Pandemic” began airing March 20. Two weeks later, Hatcher began working out of his Harlem brownstone and sharing with his husband, Herbert, the job of helping their 10-year-old son, Jaylen, with remote learning. “It's definitely not the way that I thought I was going to come into a new job,” Hatcher says. He has never met most of the show’s staff; almost everyone works remotely and connects largely via telephone conference calls.
Here, Hatcher shares his thoughts on the crisis, the show, and the future.
“I've been in journalism for over 30 years now, and each time that I’ve covered what I think is going to be the biggest crisis and story in our lives, something else happens. I thought 9/11 was it. Yet what’s happening now is clearly so much more impactful. There are moments when I just don't believe that all of this is happening, that our world really has changed so much.
“As we begin to talk about how we're going to come back from all of this, we have to recognize that we won't go back to normal. This has created a whole new way of doing business in the sense of how many people will end up working from home. At ABC, we're in the middle of building a brand-new headquarters for the network and Disney in New York. And all of those plans are gonna have to be re-thought now.”
“Being in New York, the show’s staff is feeling the crisis in a way that's different than in other parts of the country. But we've worked really hard not to make the show New York-centric. We cover different communities, different regions, different leaders, whether they are Republicans or Democrats. We really aim to get to the facts of the matter and let CNN, Fox, and the others cover the politics of it all.
“The biggest part of the show is really Dr. Ashton. We start off every day with what is known about the virus, what we think we know, and what the medical field and researchers are trying to figure out. We want to sort through the myths out there and let viewers know what’s true and what’s not.
“It is sort of a wonder that we are able to get the show done. We're producing this really high-quality program from different apartments and houses across the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut area. And viewers would never know it. The other day, someone from our IT department talked about how proud they were because they literally had set up a system that someone three or four months ago would have said, ‘We can't do that.’ ”
“We're going to be dealing with this virus for a very long time. This is not going to just go away, and it's really fundamentally changing the way that life is.
“After 9/11, you wondered how we would ever recover. And we recovered, better than ever. And that gives me a lot of hope in this situation.
“Initially during the crisis, there was an incredible focus on the doctors and the nurses — the folks on the front lines. That was incredible. But the sanitation worker, the grocery store clerks, the transportation workers on the subway — so many of them have gotten sick. That illustrates in a dramatic way the disparity that we have in the country and in New York. And if we look closely at that, we really do have an opportunity to make some changes for the better. This could be a big moment for us as a country.”