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.
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 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.
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