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Reports about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ two meetings with Russia’s U.S. ambassador became a textbook illustration of the vastly different shapes a story takes in today’s media world.
The story moved with lightning speed Thursday across the media ecosphere, from the Washington Post‘s initial revelation the night before, to hours of political combat, and finally to Sessions’ announcement — broadcast live Thursday afternoon on broadcast and cable news networks — that he would remove himself from any investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
“This is really going to take the temperature down on Capitol Hill,” MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt said following Sessions’ news conference.
Perhaps. The story about Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador, with the backdrop of still-unanswered questions about Russian ties to President Donald Trump, had enough mystery to make it politically malleable: Why did they take place and what was said? Some Democrats called for Sessions’ resignation, while many Trump supporters saw nothing wrong.
Less than 24 hours after the Post story broke, the chyron on CNN’s screen read “Sessions Under Siege.” He was in a “firestorm.” Meanwhile, the Breitbart News website had another take: “Fake news: Media, Democrats distort remarks to target Jeff Session.”
Before Sessions’ news conference, news networks and websites featured two key videos: one showing Sessions answering a question from Minnesota Sen. Al Franken about the meetings in a January hearing, and the other NBC’s brief interview with Sessions on Thursday morning. The attorney general said he would recuse himself from an investigation into the government’s Russian ties, “whenever it’s appropriate,” a determination he made by mid-afternoon.
The conservative website Red State used sarcasm as the story sucked up television time. “Jeff Sessions met with a Russian ambassador and now all hell is breaking loose,” the site headlined.
“I’m sorry, I don’t see the scandal here,” wrote Joe Cunningham. “Yeah, Sessions wasn’t completely forthcoming, but if we fired all politicians for failing to disclose all the facts that may or may not be relevant to an issue, then we would be without politicians.”
The liberal website Daily Kos linked a clip of the Sessions testimony under the headline, “Here are the 30 seconds that may end Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ career.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, this ends in resignation,” wrote Jen Hayden. “There is no other reasonable outcome. Sessions will be lucky if it doesn’t result in jail time, too.”
CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel all aired a live news conference of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling for Sessions’ resignation. But after Schumer answered one question from a reporter, Fox turned the sound off on the New York senator and on for a split-screen interview with Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican. Scalise urged viewers not to rush to judgment.
Similarly, CNN and MSNBC ran House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s news conference from beginning to end as she also called for Sessions’ resignation. Fox was televising a story about opioid abuse in Maryland when Pelosi began talking; the network shifted to Pelosi, but only for a few seconds before a commercial break, and never returned to her.
“Her message is very similar to Chuck Schumer’s, so we’ll see where this goes,” anchor Bill Hemmer said.
The journey of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday illustrated a politician who delivered different messages to different outlets.
McCarthy was interviewed on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where he said Sessions’ recusal from the Russian investigation would be important for the trust of the American people. Asked directly by Mark Halperin whether public trust in an independent review required Session’s recusal, McCarthy said yes. “I think it would be easier,” he said.
Forty-five minutes later, McCarthy was on Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends, where anchor Ainsley Earhardt asked, “Why are you calling on him to recuse himself?”
McCarthy said he wasn’t calling for Sessions’ recusal, and said his feelings were similar to what Sessions had expressed in his morning interview, when he said he would recuse himself if it were appropriate. “That’s all my answer was,” McCarthy said. “It’s amazing how people spin things so quickly.”
“I’m sorry I asked it the wrong way,” Earhardt said. “But I don’t watch Morning Joe. I was told that’s what the mainstream media is reporting.”
Sessions’ defenders suggested the newspaper story on Sessions was part of a Democratic effort to distract from Trump’s well-received speech Tuesday before Congress. “The conspiracy theories on the left are getting wilder than ever,” said Fox’s Dana Perino.
On the liberal Talking Points Memo website, founder Josh Marshall wrote that he didn’t yet have a sense of how serious the Sessions story was. He found Sessions’ need to conceal the meetings more interesting than the meetings themselves.
“Astronomers can’t see black holes directly,” wrote Marshall. “They map them by their event horizon and their effect on nearby stars and stellar matter. We can’t see yet what’s at the center of the Trump/Russia black hole. But we can tell a lot about its magnitude by the scope of the event horizon and the degree of its gravitational pull, which is immense.”
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