Millions of Americans who watched James Comey testify before the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday heard the former FBI director describe infuriating, alarming, and uncomfortable meetings with President Trump. These conversations were so alarming that Comey said he immediately began taking extensive notes on the interactions. He did so, he said, because he was “honestly concerned that [the president] might lie about the nature” of their discussions, adding, “I knew there might come a day when I might need a record of what happened, not only to defend myself but to protect the FBI.” Comey said he had felt pressured by the president, and that Trump and his administration had subsequently “lied and defamed” Comey and the FBI in general.
It’s likely that as viewers watched Comey’s testimony, we all remembered times in our lives when we had tense, one-on-one discussions with a boss — when we were subjected to pressure and manipulation by a work superior and thought to ourselves, “I’ve got to remember what’s being said here, or it’s going to come back to bite me.” Many of us probably recalled somewhere in the past — or perhaps the present — the difficulties of dealing with a bullying, recalcitrant, vaguely threatening, or staggeringly obtuse boss. Such was the highly relatable drama that played out over the course of Comey’s answers.
The TV coverage and analysis of the Comey testimony wasn’t primarily concerned with these sorts of feelings, although there was a certain amount of framing of this TV show as a soap opera: The broadcast networks — which made a rare interruption of their daytime schedules of game shows, talk shows, and soap operas to televise the hearings — shot Comey’s face in tight close-ups, unlike the cable news outlets, which maintained a more discreet distance. It was as though NBC, CBS, and ABC were echoing the kinds of close-ups used by soap opera directors to emphasize distraught emotions playing across the faces of actors.
When the hearings concluded, everyone went to their respective corners. For CNN and MSNBC, the primary takeaways were Comey’s concerns about presidential lies and pressures to be loyal. They emphasized certain quotes from Comey, such as “Lordy, I hope there are tapes” of the Trump-Comey one-on-one conversations.
Meanwhile, over at Fox, they were pouncing on a number of things: That Comey answered “No” to the question, “Did Russia succeed in changing any votes?” That Comey shared copies of his memos with the media, outside the Department of Justice. (“He leaked that information!” squeaked Bill Hemmer, not providing the context that Comey was a private citizen when he did so.) And that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch asked Comey to refer to the FBI’s examination of Hillary Clinton’s email server as a “matter” and not an “investigation,” because, you know: Hillary Clinton.
In other words, it was business as usual with TV news. Except you know it wasn’t a good day to be in the presidential-spokesperson business when you had to say, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders felt it necessary to assert, “I can definitively say the president is not a liar” — and then refer all further questions from the news media to the president’s attorney.
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