Former FBI director James B. Comey's testimony Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee was a rare opportunity to compare how different news networks cover the same event. Every network aired it live, but not every network covered it in the same way. While MSNBC and CNN emphasized possible wrongdoing by the president in their coverage, Fox News hedged on Comey's accusations and removed context for some of his statements.
The Washington Post tracked what those networks plastered across the lower-third captions on their viewers’ screens during key exchanges. Explore the entire archive of captions during the nearly three-hour hearing here.
Here are a few key moments in the Comey hearing, as interpreted by MSNBC, CNN and Fox News:
“Those were lies, plain and simple.”
In his opening statement, Comey characterized the Trump administration’s stated reasons for his firing as “lies, plain and simple.” CNN and MSNBC almost immediately updated their lower thirds with the word “lie,” while Fox instead focused on the broader point. According to our data, the word “lie” did not appear on Fox’s lower third until Comey used it again 10 minutes later.
“I've seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
All three networks jumped on this quote almost immediately. MSNBC and CNN soon added Comey’s folksy “Lordy” to the front of the quote. Fox never did.
“I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter.”
All three networks reacted quickly when Comey revealed he asked a friend to give the memo to a reporter, effectively outing himself as a leaker of his own notes.
“I took it as a direction. . . . I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.”
— Comey in reference to President Trump telling him, “I hope you can let this go”
While CNN and MSNBC raised the possibility of obstruction of justice after talk of Trump’s February Oval Office conversation with Comey, Fox focused on the part of the former FBI director’s testimony in which he said that Trump’s exact wording wasn’t explicitly asking him to drop the investigation, removing the context that surrounded his answer.
In an exchange with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), Comey compared Trump’s “hope” that he would drop the investigation to that of King Henry II, who in 1170 supposedly asked, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” That priest, Thomas Becket, was killed the next day, though Henry never technically commanded anyone to kill him. Our colleague Sarah Pulliam Bailey explains the reference in more detail here.
CNN seized on this exchange from Comey for a good portion of its coverage, emphasizing that Comey “took Trump's request . . . as a directive.”
“That language tracked the way the campaign was talking about FBI’s work, and that's concerning.”
— Comey discussing a request about talking points on the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
After Comey explained that then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch had asked him to refer to the Clinton email investigation as a “matter” rather than an “investigation” (which matched the Clinton campaign’s language), CNN and Fox slapped up text explaining the request. MSNBC skirted the specifics on this, simply saying Comey was being grilled on the subject of the Clinton email probe, among others.
Comey discusses the FBI’s role
While MSNBC and CNN mentioned the FBI to emphasize potentially questionable actions by Trump and his administration, some of Fox’s mentions moved the focus away from the president's culpability, with others emphasizing the bureau’s resilience (COMEY: THE FBI IS HONEST, STRONG AND WILL ALWAYS BE INDEPENDENT).
MSNBC was the only network of the three to give the chyron treatment to Comey’s refusal to discuss certain topics in the open session, drawing attention to the secrecy and inviting viewers to fill in the blanks with their own conspiracy theory du jour.
Kim Soffen contributed to this report.