The verdict is clear: James Comey made a persuasive case for charging the President of the United States with obstruction of justice.
On the other hand, no he didn’t.
Oh, well, that’s business as usual in the land of partisan TV news in America. A news event happens, and then for hours on end you get two opposing points of view about what you just saw.
“You decide!” exhorts one of the news channels in its promotion materials. Thanks to the news channels, however, that is very difficult.
But I'm a TV columnist, not a constitutional law scholar. Come to think of it, very few (if any) of the talking heads and talk-show hosts on MSNBC, CNN or Fox News Channels are legal scholars either. They are experts in something else that is more important, though: Blathering incessantly.
In that regard, Thursday's Comey hearing was like a goose that laid a million golden eggs, resulting in the mobilization of the news channels’ vast armies of contributors, columnists, commentators and consultants.
You knew something big had taken place when you grazed by CNN during the hours after the hearing and saw their panels of seven or eight people -- numbers they trot out only in the event of something really important.
So how was the Comey show? On a scale of one to 10 -- with 10 being great television -- I'd give it an 8, which is to say: This one was pretty good as televised government hearings go.
These can really run the gamut. I remember covering similarly televised governmental and judicial proceedings in the 1990s and early ’00s -- most notably the various televised hearings on President Clinton's impeachment and later the proceedings following the “hanging chad” presidential election of fall 2000.
I remember writing of them that, for the most part, they were pretty dull -- as TV, that is. That's not a judgement about their importance or the wide interest in their subject matter, which fully justified their being televised.
It's just that sometimes these things can be dry and challenging for a portion of their audience to follow, understand and remain interested in.
The Comey hearing on Thursday, however, had a welcome bounce to it as a piece of televised entertainment. Whatever impression of Comey you took away, he had an engaging, almost “gee whiz” manner of speaking that helped keep the proceedings humming along.
Unlike other such telecasts, I found that this “show” kept my mind from wandering. Plus, I never yawned, even once. Among other elements, the pacing was aided by the time restriction placed on each senator.
This may have been why so few of them prefaced their questioning, with windy opening statements about American institutions, our way of life, the Constitution, or any other topic not germane to what we were all tuning in to hear about.
And the hearing was mercifully short. It ran from about 10 a.m. to about 1 p.m. (after which there was a hearing undertaken in private because of certain topics considered classified).
Of course, that hearing might have had much juicier material to take in. However, the part that was televised for us peons certainly gave a heap of insight into how some business is conducted in Washington.
Based on Comey's descriptions of Oval Office meetings and presidential phone calls, you got the feeling that everyone in Washington is on their guard all the time whenever they meet with someone else in power.
They watch what they say, listen carefully to what they’re being told to detect hidden meanings, and wonder if they’re being recorded. It’s like they’re Tony Soprano talking to Paulie Walnuts about “this thing of ours.” Is this any way to run a government?
A quick check of the channels airing this hearing live on Thursday revealed that all the majors were on board, including both Univision and Telemundo, which is not always the case with events like this.
There was an old-fashioned aspect to this telecast too. TV has been airing these kinds of hearings since the beginning of the TV era in the 1950s. They're an old school staple, and it is worth applauding the willingness on the part of network TV execs to preempt their regular shows to air these kinds of hearings once in a while.
It's also true that in today's saturated media world, the TV networks don't really have to do this anymore. I happened to watch the whole thing via live stream on CNN.com with no breaks, buffering or viewability disruptions of any kind. Imagine that -- it was just like television.
Where is that smoking gun that we were promised? Even a Boston Globe columnist admits there was none, only glorifying Comey as a straight-shooter. His performance was riveting (and amazing given his pariah status shortly after Hillary's loss). How does his June 8 appearance compare to his May 3 appearance -- and will this become a regular series? Stay tuned; this won't go away.
You hit the nail squarely on the head with "incessant blathering." Whenever I turn on CNN (unless they're running a documentary) there's always a "breaking news" banner somewhere on the screen, leaving me to wonder how the network would deal with a really big story. A few days ago, I found out when I tuned in and heard Wolf Blitzer intone "And now Massive Breaking News...!" If the 1962 Cuban missle crisis happened today it would no doubt trigger an epidemic of babbling apoplexia across the nation's newsrooms. God help us all...!
I agree about the incessant blathering. Having spent the first 5 years of my 40 in this business in news radio (pre-cable news), and coming from an old(er) person's POV, I have a whole different idea of what GOOD wall-to-wall coverage is, what it should include and what to avoid--not to mention when it's even called for (as Douglas asks: what smoking gun?). I also agree with David about Wolf Blitzer and CNN, which is why I don't watch him any more. Unfortunately, Wolf isn't alone with the overdramatization. I prefer MSNBC overall, though I wish Rachel Maddow wasn't bringing in such big numbers at 9pm. She's good at what she does IMO, bright and occasionally articulate; but her excessive drama is a bit much for me. Her overuse of words like "bombshell" and "shocking" for news that is nothing of the sort, and pointedly (along with her facial expressions) for the purpose of drama, is more than I can handle 5 nights a week. I got spoiled by Ari Melber's taking over for Rachel while she was sick; his intelligent, confident delivery, with an absence of stumbling and stuttering, is so utterly watchable.