Ann Curry Talks ‘Chasing the Cure’ and Reporting in the Age of Coronavirus

Ann Curry
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It’s safe to say that “Chasing the Cure,” the acclaimed medical series that marked Ann Curry’s return to the small screen, is unlike anything else on television.

Over the course of each 90-minute episode, the TBS and TNT series used crowdsourcing and a network of doctors and specialists to try to solve various medical mysteries and help desperately ill patients suffering from undiagnosed diseases. The show asked viewers, as well as teams of physicians and experts, to come up with possible causes and treatments, and also offered up a global digital platform to facilitate an ongoing dialogue.

For Curry, best known for her stint on “Today,” it was particularly important that the program put the health and well-being of its subjects first, assisting them with getting access to care and treating their stories sensitively. Reviewers praised the program for its mixture of groundbreaking science and humanism. The series recently won a Critics Choice Real TV Award and could be an Emmy contender.

“Chasing the Cure’s” first season wrapped in October 2019, several months before the coronavirus upended life. Curry believes that COVID-19 makes the show’s mission to connect patients and healthcare providers more relevant than ever. She wants the sophomore season to focus on the search for a vaccine for the virus. She talked to Variety about journalism in the age of Trump, life after “Today,” and her reaction to “The Morning Show,” the Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Anniston drama that is set in a fictionalized morning newsroom that’s similar to the one Curry labored in for 15 years.

Were you concerned that a show like this was inadvertently exploiting desperately ill people instead of helping them?

Absolutely, that was my first concern. There was no way that I was going to participate in something that exploited already vulnerable people. The best way to avoid doing that was to put the patient first. So we stressed finding a diagnosis and then finding ways to connect these patients to specialists. We also brought in a medical ethicist to guide us. Everything came back to accuracy and credibility and fairness.

What I find remarkable is that of the 26 patients whose stories we aired, 17 were diagnosed. Many of them had spent years suffering from an illness they could not name. That speaks to the power of television and of the internet. The technology is there to help people, but the medical community, as great as it is, has not fully harnessed it to connect the dots.

How did the medical system let people down?

There are a lot of silos that block people’s access to good care and they include not having enough money and not living in a place in close proximity to the right doctors and specialists.

Your first season aired before the coronavirus pandemic. Will that change how you approach another season?

The pandemic has changed everything and suddenly what we proved we can do is in even higher demand — providing credible medical data without a political agenda and connecting people with top doctors and specialist. People want to be greater forces for good right now and we provide a platform that empowers them to do just that.

The pandemic has really sparked a lot of conversations with our producers about how we can use our storytelling skills to put a human face on a disease that we still don’t fully understand. We want to talk to the smartest minds in the world as they’re investigating this novel virus and to tell the story of their search for a vaccine in real time. We want to delve into the harsh realities that this pandemic exposes about our country, including the epidemic of poor care for minority communities.

You mentioned providing medical information without a “political agenda,” but the conversation around COVID-19 and safety precautions such as mask-wearing has become highly politicized. Has that surprised you?

I’ve seen this before. This is what happened in the early years of climate change. I’ve also seen this in different ways when I’ve covered wars or genocides. That’s when you see doubts sown about the veracity of truth. People are so distrustful of our institutions and of our government that science and even morality can become politicized.

How should journalists respond to that challenge?

All you can do is strive to be trustworthy, to be credible, to be honest, and to tell the truth.

I don’t think reporters should be fighting publicly with sources. There are organizations that can handle that. Journalists should just do their job. They should keep their head down and stay humble. This isn’t a job that makes you popular. Journalists have always been consider scum by politicians and presidents, even their own readers. I’m not a believer in “both side-ism.” There are certain stories that have no other side.

But let me tell you a story. My father and I would watch Walter Cronkite every night. Once in a while someone fill in for our beloved Walter. And that person would say a fact in a certain tone or they’d add an adjective and it would outrage my father. He’d shout, ‘stop telling me what to think.’ He didn’t want to be persuaded. That’s not our jobs as journalists and doing that kind of thing is disrespectful to readers and viewers. My one bias as a journalist is that our job is to illuminate and serve the public. We don’t serve the owners of a newspaper or the head of a network or the person who writes our checks or our sources. I think that’s the one acceptable bias to have for reporters.

Do you miss morning television? Would you ever return to a morning news program?

I don’t miss the hours. I now recognize how much sleep I was missing. I do believe that television is a great connector. It can be an incredibly powerful medium for good.  I’m always open to doing new things, so I wouldn’t close the door on [a morning show] entirely. But I want to believe that whatever job I do, I’m doing something useful.

Have you watched “The Morning Show”? 

I haven’t seen it and I purposely made that decision. I love Reese and Jennifer, I applaud their motivation in making the series and support their mission to tell the stories of women, but I just didn’t feel like I needed to watch it.

COVID-19 is touching so many people directly. Do you think that the  pandemic will make people more empathetic and more sympathetic to people who live with illness and disease? 

I don’t know what the longterm impact will be. I don’t think it’s the last epidemic we’ll face, though hopefully it is the last pandemic we will face. I do hope there is an awakening, because we all get sick. It is not something foreign to me and it’s probably not an alien experience for you.

With “Chasing the Cure” we told some pretty painful stories — stories that could be hard to watch. But we weren’t trying to exploit suffering. We wanted to empower people and celebrate hero doctors, hero patients, and hero viewers.