May 15, 2020

By Guy Campanile and Mitch Weitzner
The special ‘Bravery and Hope: 7 Days On The Front Line’ details a week in the life of medical staff at the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis.

In Making it Work, creatives and decision-makers from across ViacomCBS describe how they turned an idea into a reality. In this installment, we spoke to Guy Campanile and Mitch Weitzner, two longtime CBS News staffers, who served as executive producers on the upcoming CBS News special “Bravery and Hope: 7 Days On The Front Line.” They spoke about how they were able to report from inside Montefiore Medical Center amid the COVID-19 crisis. The special airs Friday at 9 p.m. EST on CBS. CBSN, CBS News’ 24/7 digital streaming news service, will present the special Saturday, May 16 and Sunday, May 17 at 10 p.m.

Campanile: On April 16, I entered Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, along with three fellow CBS News journalists. We spent a full week in the hospital to tell the story of the COVID-19 epidemic through the eyes and experiences of those on the front lines—the doctors, nurses, and medical staff who put themselves at risk every single day. More than 700 patients were in the hospital that week, and 80% were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Weitzner: By choosing to report from within Montefiore, there were some risks even though we had protective gear. The decision to enter the hospital had to be completely voluntary.

Campanile: It required a vote of agreement from all four of us—myself and producers Sean Herbert, Andrew Bast, and Gilad Thaler—as well as our families. No one could go into it with any reservations. But there are stories you just have to tell and tell right. There’s a famous line from CBS 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt that we live by at CBS News: “Tell me a story.” We don’t want to just read the news.

Weitzner: Part of what shaped our approach and what made us arrive at the decision to do this is that we had all seen weeks and weeks of blanket hard news coverage. It was excellent, but there was still something missing. So we thought about what we could do in primetime that would justify the word 'special.' We said, ‘let's do a small story' and go to one town, one block, or one institution. We wanted to frame it as a story you could hold in your hand, rather than something sprawling. We arrived at the idea of trying to a deep dive inside one hospital.  New York City has the highest COVID-19 death toll in the country, and within that the Bronx has the highest death toll per capita among the five boroughs in New York City. So we went to the epicenter of the epicenter.

Campanile: The CBS News team felt the most additive way to tell the story about the ongoing global health pandemic was to be on the front lines, the same way we’d be on the front lines in a combat zone while covering U.S. military units in Iraq or Afghanistan. But if you’re with NATO forces in Afghanistan, you know where the bad guy is and where the threat is. When you're in a hurricane, you know where the wind and the rain is and you stay away from that. Throughout my +25-year career in news, I’ve been on the front lines in various ways, but I always knew where the threat was coming from.

With COVID-19, you have no idea where the threat is. It creates a hostile environment. You don't know who's carrying it. You don't know whether a doorknob is contaminated, if you're infected, if your colleagues are infected, so everything you do is to protect yourself and the people you're working with at all times. That makes it really complicated.

Weitzner: As somebody who did not go inside, it was amazing that the four of them willfully chose to do so because of their commitment to the story and their passion for journalism. It really is extraordinary to take on that risk. They all have my utmost respect for doing that.

Campanile: Before we were able to gain access to the hospital, we were trained by CBS News and Montefiore’s head of emergency medicine to ensure protection from any risk. Luckily, no one contracted COVID-19; either someone was looking out for us or we did everything right.

"The physical and psychological demands were unlike anything I’ve experienced before… My brain was firing on all cylinders at all times."

Guy Campanile

Executive Producer

We reported in bursts of two to three hours at a time and it was completely exhausting. The physical and psychological demands were unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I can’t understand how nurses and doctors can wear gowns, gloves, N-95 surgical masks, and face shields for 12-hour shifts. I had to continually try to keep my mind on what was going on around me and where the risk was, while also trying to focus on creating the best possible story. My brain was firing on all cylinders at all times.

One thing that stayed with me  was watching CPR being performed on a coronavirus patient. Every compression pumps the virus into the room, directly at those doctors and nurses who are inches away from that patient. It was just astonishing. I've been impressed by our service men and women in harm's way before, but this is different because it's so intimate. Despite being surrounded by something they've never encountered before, they continue the work together. They remain hopeful that they'll get a handle on it and that the world will get a handle on it.

Weitzner: Every part of the special was produced remotely. We were able to produce this without entering our CBS News headquarters and the remarkable thing is that the viewer will never know the difference. You can’t tell by looking at the documentary that it’s been produced in a way that’s different than anything we’ve done before.

Photos: Inside the "Red Zone" of a New York Hospital

After each day, the four journalists would return to a house near the hospital, where editor Holden Frandino and field producer Dani Levy organized all of our footage. They also put themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Campanile: We’d go through a thorough disinfection process—of ourselves and each bit of gear that we brought into the hospital, including microphones and cameras. (We used smaller handheld cameras to create the least amount of intrusion in the hospital halls and rooms). Frandino was pumping all of our material up to a virtual server. Weitzner made the whole process work and I think it was totally innovative and amazing.

Weitzner: This special is a deeper, intimate, and more personalized way to tell the story. We chose to present it to the viewer in the most unfiltered way we could. Since we want the hour to focus on the stories of the medical staff, we decided not to include an anchor or narration. It is essentially a first person account told by a small ensemble of healthcare professionals about their experience on the front lines, with a fly on the wall approach. The result is something very vivid and we hope, very memorable.  The main concern from Montefiore administrators was patient privacy, so we went to great lengths to address that.

Campanile: When the President and Senior Executive Producer of CBS News, Susan Zirinsky, who really supported the idea of this project, asked me what words came to mind after my experience inside the hospital, the two words I said were “bravery” and “hope.” And, that’s how we determined the name of the special.

There's no false bravado here. There are no hotshots trying to be tough guys. This is what we do. At CBS News, we’re storytellers. It’s what we do better than anybody else.

 

As told to Nicole Bitette.

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