Something happened on Thursday that hardly ever happens any more: The news media stopped and collectively focused on one event. There was no other story in this otherwise fragmented news world; James B. Comey’s congressional testimony was it and only it.
Fox News metaphorically locked arms with CNN, which linked with MSNBC and HLN and Fox Business and CNBC and CSPAN and PBS in airing the former FBI director’s testimony before the Senate intelligence committee. The commercial broadcast networks swept aside “Let’s Make a Deal,” “The Price is Right” and other syndicated trifles to carry it live for nearly 2½ hours. Univision (“Comey: El Testimonio”) provided hushed simultaneous English-to-Spanish translation of the proceedings, too.
It was this way for epic congressional hearings of yore, from Army-McCarthy in 1954 through Watergate, Iran-contra and Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. But the key word is “yore.” All of those were artifacts of a bygone media age, long before an explosion of news sources made living in an info-bubble possible if not desirable. Those hearings were a product of the pre-Internet, pre-10,000 channel, pre-Netflix universe when media consensus was easily achieved.
But now? Outside of presidential elections and a thankfully rare national emergency such as 9/11, America’s news industry flies on many separate beams. The news agenda is in pieces, dependent on the demographic imperatives and perceived audience tastes of each outlet and organization. There is no consensus on an agenda, and certainly no consensus about something as telegenically inert as a congressional hearing.
Cable networks fueled the buildup to Comey-Palooza with countdown clocks, 10-member talking-head panels, and prehearing hallway shots of senators arriving like heavyweights before a title fight. Although some of the surprise may have been deflated by the release of Comey’s written testimony on Wednesday, the hearing was cast as a national suspense story unequaled since verdict day at O.J. Simpson’s double-murder trial in 1995.
There was no finality in the event itself. News was made during the hearing, of course, but to what effect remains unclear.
Comey testified that he believed he was fired because he refused to commit to burying an FBI investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. He said President Trump had attempted to establish a quid pro quo — by backing off the investigation, he’d keep his job, Comey suggested the president suggested — providing fodder for post-hearing discussions about whether Trump had obstructed justice. Comey also confirmed his prehearing testimony that he had told the president repeatedly that he was not the subject an investigation.
Perhaps more plainly, the public was treated — if that’s the right word — to the extraordinary spectacle of a former FBI director telling the world that the president is a liar. Five times.
“Although the law requires no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader,” Comey said. “Those were lies plain and simple.”
Lie-wise, Comey said he documented his private meetings with Trump because he was concerned Trump would lie about what happened. He directly disputed Trump’s claim that Comey had requested a meeting in February to lobby for keeping his job; that Comey had called Trump (other way around, he said), and, the FBI director went on to say, that the president was lying when he said he had not asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation.
(Punching back later in the day, Trump’s private lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, underscored Comey’s statements that Trump wasn’t under investigation, and he noted that Comey did not say that the president attempted to impede the investigation. What’s more, Kasowitz asserted that Comey and others had leaked “classified and privileged” information, such as details of his meetings with Trump at the White House, in a “retaliatory” fashion.)
Hearings are static, visually dull affairs — just a bunch of people sitting around talking. Yet the networks, supplied with images from four “pool” cameras in the hearing room, made the most with not much. There were useful split-screen shots of speaker and listeners, and dramatic close ups of Comey’s impassive expression.
The only distinguishing element among the many networks carrying the hearing were the banners summarizing bits of information at the bottom of the screen. These betrayed both editorial emphasis, point of view, and sometimes a bit of snark.
At the same moment that CNN’s banner read, “Comey: Trump Administration Lied About Me & FBI,” Fox News offered, “General Flynn Was in Legal Jeopardy at Time of February 14 Conversation,” and MSNBC displayed, “Comey to Trump: ‘Release All the Tapes.”
At one point, CNN picked up on one of Comey’s few colorful phrases and bannered it. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” it read, a reaction to Trump’s tweet last month that Comey “better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” (The White House has repeatedly refused to say if any of their conversations were recorded, including on Thursday).
More helpful, and occasionally more loaded, were the half-screen graphics displaying bullet points about participants in the hearings. One, on CNBC, said this about Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.): “As lawyer, focused on defending doctors who were sued for malpractice.”
PBS and CSPAN2 took the neutral path. They didn’t run banners, just the name of each person speaking.
Whether any of this will prove significant in the course of the Trump presidency is hard to know in the immediate moments after the hearing. But for about 150 minutes on a Thursday in June, the media ensured that it was something that few things are any more: inescapable.