And in a culture where many citizens absorb their news on the run, headlines matter, whether seen on a depot newsstand, a TV screen or an iPhone news alert.
On Wednesday, the New York Times and The Washington Post presented the House’s articles of impeachment against President Trump as history for the ages, trumpeting the news in big type at the tops of their front pages.
The Wall Street Journal had a different top priority. The impeachment articles were merely a one-column story (next to the dominant treatment of the North American trade deal important to their business readers).
The New York City tabloids were not focused on Washington at all: Their front pages were entirely taken up with sensational coverage of a deadly shooting rampage in a residential neighborhood in Jersey City.
The Post-Star in Glens Falls, N.Y. — one of my favorite small newspapers in the United States (and a 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial writing) — took a bold approach to the impeachment news.
“Trump left no choice,” blared its banner headline, quoting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Despite the differences in emphasis, there seemed to be general agreement in newspaper world that the presentation of articles of impeachment was a big deal.
But no such agreement could be found as Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz released his report on the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
In this case, we were seriously into the familiar world of “no-agreed-upon truth.”
Early in the Tuesday news cycle, Fox News offered up its designated contrarian and straight-shooter, Chris Wallace, who pulled no punches as the news broke.
“The headline is that they didn’t find the things that Bill Barr and Donald Trump alleged,” Wallace told the Fox News morning viewers. “There was not political bias by James Comey or by his deputy Andrew McCabe. They found that it was proper to launch the investigation.” (The chyron below Wallace described the report’s faulting the FBI’s errors in how it obtained court warrants during the investigation.)
But by prime time, of course, the story on Fox News had morphed into something quite unrecognizable from Wallace’s description, echoing and building on Attorney General William P. Barr’s stunning mischaracterization: “The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken.”
Barr’s statement prompted USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers to observe, aptly, on Twitter that “this is the opposite of what the report says.”
Many news organizations were presenting the two somewhat conflicting findings of the IG’s report: That the investigation was well-founded and that the FBI had made serious mistakes along the way.
The Post’s online headline was one of these: “FBI was justified in opening Trump campaign probe, but case plagued by ‘serious failures,’ inspector general finds.”
This double-barreled approach was the most accurate — but nuance isn’t really the news media’s thing these days. And many print headlines, because of inherent space restrictions, had to make a choice about what to emphasize.
On the Amtrak newsstand on Tuesday, USA Today’s decision sent a strong message to those who might have just caught a few words as they rushed to catch the Empire Service to New York City.
Stretching across the top of the front page, the headline delivered its main takeaway: “Faults found in FBI’s surveillance.”
For those who stopped to read the sub-headline, there was this, in much lighter, smaller type: “But Russia probe was legally justified, inspector general says.”
Some travelers may have actually bought the paper, and could have read a thorough, balanced story underneath the headlines.
But I have my doubts.
As my train chugged away from the throwback print haven at Friar Tuck’s newsstand, most people were glued to their phones anyway.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.