Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s handiwork went live just after 11 a.m. Eastern time, and, within minutes, members of the commentariat — on television, on the radio and online — were confronted with the challenges of document on the report and its significance in real time.
On network and cable news, reporters dropped a copy of the report on their set desks with an impressive thud before reading it on air. Tom Jones, a senior media writer at Poynter, tuned in to see how journalists would handle the document dump.
As he flipped through a half-dozen channels, he found the effect at once comical and slightly disturbing: It was like a picture-in-picture-in-picture-in-picture, popcorn-reading portrait of the way the 24-hour news cycle chased the hottest and most important story since the 2016 election.
“It’s like doing a book report while you’re still reading the book,” Jones said in an interview. “It makes for good drama, it’s good television. But I don’t know how responsible it is journalistically.”
On one hand, Jones said, this is the way breaking news works in 2019. But, on the other, the gravity of the report magnifies the pitfalls of that approach.
“You’re not going to get to the heart of it in one sentence,” said Jones, whose Twitter account dutifully documented each anchor he saw reading aloud on TV. “It’s been in the making for two years, it’s written in legalese, with footnotes, and it’s a very complicated document. There is no one sentence, there is no highlight, there is no way to boil this down to 20 words.”
On television, journalists grappled with the immensity of the report.
On CNN, Laura Jarrett told her audience that, “We’re still working our way through it. It’s a beast of a report here. Quite dense.”
On Fox News, Bill Hemmer and Sandra Smith leafed through pages while the chyron below them urgently advertised an “ALERT.”
“Bill and I have the report with us,” Smith said, looking down at a stack of papers. “We’ve split it up into halves, everyone is digging through this right now.”
Meanwhile, on MSNBC, Ari Melber was the network’s first to read from the report. He began by reading the title and then, haltingly, moving onto the table of contents. “This will be interesting,” he said, “I’m going to read it live here with you.”
Then, at the direction of anchor Brian Williams, one of the studio’s cameras moved behind Melber’s desk and peered over his shoulder as he read.
“What I can tell you,” Melber said, as he carried on through the table of contents. “Again, that I’m getting live, because I’m reporting to you live as I’m reading it, is that sounds like Bob Mueller going point by point, tracing the line of information.”
Even on public radio, where commentary is often more carefully calibrated than on television news, reporters found themselves resorting to sentences like this one, from NPR’s Mara Liasson: “I think this is the kind of thing that doesn’t lend itself to a quick, hot take,” she said, before attempting to distill one of the report’s executive summaries.
On Twitter, her colleague Scott Detrow wrote, “Current status: reading a document on live national radio.”
At least these admissions offered audiences transparency, a crucial element of reporting at such breakneck speed, wrote The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan in a Mueller Eve column about the perilous news day to come.
“That’s why it will be important for journalists, in the initial reporting, to be open with their audiences or readers about what they don’t know,” Sullivan wrote. “To say, in essence, ‘we just got this and we are reading it in real time and trying to figure it out.’”
Even as the news moved quickly, the reporting appeared to capture the details of the document.
And Jones, midday, said the media had done a relatively good job — especially with keeping opinionators sidelined.
“They let the reporters dictate their coverage, which is the smart way to do it,” he said. “It would’ve been nice if they had three or four hours to read it, but that’s just not realistic in today’s 24-hour cable news environment. ... I’m not sure most outlets have the luxury of saying, ‘Hey, we’ll get back to you in a couple hours.’”
But ideally, Jones said, all journalists could follow the lead of ProPublica’s Eric Umansky, who pledged to read the report in full before offering up any conclusions.
“We’re gonna sit in a room, *leave our phones outside*, and READ THE DAMN REPORT,” he said on Twitter. “No takes till we’re done reading the whole thing.”