On March 15, as the novel coronavirus was beginning to surge in the United States, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci accomplished a rare Washington feat: He appeared on all five major Sunday talk shows.
But the White House worried that Fauci might upstage (and sometimes contradict) President Donald Trump, and soon his media handlers were no longer approving his high-profile interview requests.
So Fauci found another way to get his message out: He said yes to pretty much every small offer that came his way: academic webinars, Instagram feeds and niche science podcasts as well as a few celebrity interviews.
That’s how Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease scientist, found himself talking to the American Urological Association in June; the Economic Club of Chicago in July; and the “Brazda Breakfast” briefing this month.
And it may be how he ended up with a polyp on his vocal cord. “Essentially I was talking all day without interruption for six months,” he wrote in an email message Friday, the day after he had surgery to remove it.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned Fauci, a career government scientist first propelled into public view in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, into a genuine celebrity. There is now all manner of Fauci swag — Fauci socks, T-shirts, coffee mugs, buttons, stickers and masks. When the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame made a doll in his likeness, it “quickly became our best-selling bobblehead of all time,” said Phil Sklar, the group’s chief executive officer.
That renown has pushed him into the higher echelons of media interest. Most people need a slot on a major show to have a better chance of reaching a huge audience. But reporters track all of Fauci’s appearances, however obscure.
“He can talk anywhere, and if he has something he wants to say, people will notice it,” said Brendan Buck, who was the communications director for former House Speaker Paul Ryan, another man who could make news even in obscure places. Fauci, he said, “could talk to a PTA newsletter if he wanted to, and it would be covered, and there would be follow-on eyes for it.”
Asked about his rules for media appearances, Fauci said (by email) he frequently says yes. His only automatic nos are for fundraisers or “anything remotely political.”
Whether by design or not, Fauci has effectively circumvented efforts by the White House to mute him. Since Mark Meadows took over as chief of staff on March 31, White House communications officials have approved very few requests from major outlets. But there is no such review process for smaller ones, like the weekly podcast of the Journal of the American Medical Association or the KC O’Dea radio show.
In recent weeks, Fauci has been joining as many as five such shows a day. On Aug. 13, he appeared on O’Dea’s show, which serves the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, market; a podcast affiliated with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; “The Pat McCrory Show with Bo Thompson”; a National Geographic special on pandemics; and a local Fox affiliate in High Point, North Carolina. He also appeared on “NewsHour,” the PBS evening news show.
His appearances are widely watched by reporters from larger outlets, who then quote him in their news reports.
Peter Staley, an HIV/AIDS activist who has been close to him for years, said Fauci had always been a skilled public communicator, able to promote public health messages through any available channel.
“He would prefer to go on Andrea Mitchell and Sanjay Gupta, but he has marveled that this lower-level stuff kind of ends up the same way,” Staley said. “He does the little Zoom with Harvard, and it’s on CNN that night.”
In July, Fauci appeared on a weekly video news conference that Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., hosts for local media on his Facebook page. Fauci made news when he directly contradicted Trump by saying it was a “false narrative to take comfort in a lower rate of death,” comments that rippled across the national media that day.
Fauci has rarely appeared on CNN’s prime-time broadcasts, but he did grant an hourlong interview to “The Axe Files,” a CNN-backed podcast hosted by David Axelrod, who was a top adviser to President Barack Obama. “Tony is the personification of the nagging reality that science presents,” Axelrod said. “What he understands is that it really doesn’t matter where you say what you say. We’re in a digital age, and you will be heard. And he’s right. I mean, you know, when Tony Fauci speaks, people find him.”
Journalists with major news broadcasts are frustrated they can’t book Fauci during a public health emergency. Margaret Brennan, host of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” told her audience in July that the White House had not approved any interviews with Fauci since March, inhibiting public understanding of the pandemic. “We will continue our efforts,” she said. Mary Hager, executive producer of the show, said they asked for Fauci and other government scientists every week.
“We have this genius and this gold mine of a guest,” she said. “And we can’t use him to his absolute maximum capacity at a time when people are dying.”
Yet Fauci’s accessibility is a boon for smaller outlets that can’t always book such a prominent guest. In July, Vincent Racaniello, a Columbia University professor and the co-host of a podcast, “This Week in Virology,” inquired about an interview. Fauci agreed almost immediately.
“I was surprised because I know he’s been very busy,” he said. “I figured he wouldn’t have time to do it, and I also wondered whether he would be allowed to do it.”
Fauci spoke on the podcast for 30 minutes, sharing his assessments of the latest science on COVID-19 and the strategies that various pharmaceutical companies were using to investigate vaccines. The audience for the 12-year-old “This Week in Virology” has been growing since the pandemic hit, but the Fauci episode has been its most popular one, with close to 100,000 combined podcast downloads and YouTube views.
“Given the urgency of the situation and the need to get correct information out, I was doing as many as humanly possible,” Fauci said. He mentioned he had a soft spot for commencement addresses, of which he had done several, even though he knew the audiences would be small. He spoke to the graduating class of the College of the Holy Cross, his alma mater, among other colleges.
He is keenly aware of his media profile; he knows, for instance, that the March 15 string of Sunday shows amounted to a “full Ginsburg.” (The reference is to William H. Ginsburg, a lawyer for Monica Lewinsky, who appeared on all five Sunday shows in 1998.)
But his inclination to say yes — and his friendships with prominent journalists — has sometimes gotten him in trouble, as it did when his friend Norah O’Donnell interviewed him for InStyle magazine. Fauci was photographed by his backyard pool wearing sunglasses — an image that did not sit well with Republicans and one he now says he regrets.
“Not really me, and anyone who knows me understands that this is not my style,” he wrote. “I can understand the criticism, and like I said, I wish I could take it back. My bad.”
His friends say he has overextended himself; Staley said he had lately been encouraging Fauci to “take an ax to his schedule.” The polyp surgery has done that for him. He can’t do extended interviews until September.
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