TV coverage of Comey testimony comes with plenty of spin

Former FBI Director James Comey

Former FBI Director James Comey arrives to testify during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC, June 8, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The extensive coverage of former FBI Director James Comey’s Senate testimony gave Americans time to pause and focus on the slowly unfolding story about President Donald Trump and Russian involvement in the presidential campaign. But there was no rest for partisan spinners.

Broadcast networks cast aside regular schedules for three or four hours. So did cable news networks, bracketing Comey’s first public appearance since being fired by Trump with hours of their own talk. His plain-spoken answers to questions from alternating Democratic and Republican senators offered quotes for each side to latch on to.

“Depending on which camp you’re in, you could say that Comey totally condemned President Trump today, or you could say the president was exonerated by Comey,” commentator Dana Perino said on Fox News Channel. “The thing is, this was just another log on the fire, because America is going to continue to push forward on this.”

Television commentators did not break in to Comey’s testimony, but through headlines put onscreen — called chyrons — they were able to choose often contradictory points of emphasis. That was the case when Comey talked about Trump’s discussion with him about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

trump comey

President Donald Trump (C) shakes hands with James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), during an Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House on January 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

On Fox, for example, a chyron read, “Comey: President did not order me to let Flynn probe go.” On CNN, the message read “Comey: I took Trump’s request about Flynn as a directive.”

Chyrons on Fox, where Trump fans dominate the audience, often emphasized news favorable to the president. “Comey: Not for me to say if Trump obstructed,” read one headline. “Comey: Nobody asked me to stop Russian probe,” was another.

Other networks were more likely to highlight testimony where Comey said Trump lied, or he didn’t trust his word. “Comey: Trump lied about reasons for firing,” was one chyron on MSNBC. “Comey: Trump administration lied about me and FBI,” was on CNN.

Evidence of the fierceness of the political battle came in the bits and pieces of Comey’s testimony emphasized on different outlets and social media accounts. This was particularly true when Comey said that he leaked contents of a memo about his conversation with Trump to The New York Times through a friend, later identified as Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman. Comey wanted to get his account out, perhaps encouraging the appointment of a special counsel.

“This whole thing is a giant nothing-burger,” the conservative website Breitbart News wrote as Comey talked, “except for Comey implicating himself as a leaker.”

On the liberal site Talking Points Memo, the same detail was hailed as evidence of “how Comey outflanked Trump.”
For those who paid close attention, that wasn’t entirely new. The Times, in a May 16 story, noted that one of Comey’s associates read parts of the memo to a Times reporter.

comey testify

A view of the hearing room before FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill June 8, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Comey took the Times and other media outlets to task, however, testifying that “there have been many, many stories about Russia … that are dead wrong.” Prodded specifically by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Comey also said that much of a Feb. 14 story in the Times about Trump campaign aides repeatedly being in contact with Russian intelligence agents was incorrect.

The Times, through a spokeswoman, said it had reviewed the story in question and found no evidence that the reporting was inaccurate. Subsequent reporting by the Times and other media outlets have verified the reporting, she said.

Neither Comey nor the FBI has said what specifically they believed was incorrect, she said. “Should they provide more information, we would review that as well,” The Times said.

Comey faced little real hostility from the senators, and the hearing’s pace slowed under repetitive questioning. One humorous moment relieved the tension, when Comey explained to Sen. Angus King of Maine that he had to break a date with his wife when Trump called him for a dinner at the White House.

“That’s one of the all-time great excuses to break a date with your wife,” King said.

Sen. John McCain was roasted online for a line of questioning where he appeared to conflate separate investigations on the Russian connection and on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server.

Besides the traditional networks, Spanish-language station Telemundo aired the testimony with a voiceover translation. Telemundo, in the moments before Comey started, also showed a simulated reconstruction of Trump and Comey meeting in the White House, with conversations in Spanish printed in cartoon-like bubbles over their heads.

The testimony reached more than political junkies. Singer Lorde tweeted: “Only in 2017 would one be launching a tour and watching Comey testify at the same time.” Late-night hosts Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah — not waiting for their shows — took to social media for some humorous comedy.

“It became a reality show a long time ago,” said 25-year-old David Rosenberg, following the hearing at the Brooklyn coffee house Building on Bond. “This is just the next episode. We might as well watch.”
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Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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