The television news media used words normally associated with romance novels or QVC sales pitches in reacting to news that President Trump had abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday.
Even for a news media that’s grown accustomed to covering unprecedented situations since Trump took office, the abrupt firing was treated as a DEFCON 1 alert. A fire hose of adrenaline. A great unmasker of raw emotion that lay just below the TV-ready exteriors of anchors, correspondents and guests alike.
“What kind of country is this!” bristled legal analyst Jeffery Toobin on CNN on Tuesday. The firing is “a grotesque abuse of power,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that goes on in nondemocracies.”
“Situation Room” host Wolf Blitzer appeared to blanch, breaking his first on-air sweat since perhaps the 1970s.
The generally stoic Anderson Cooper rolled his eyes when Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway skirted a question about the president’s sudden change of opinion on Comey and instead reminded Cooper how she’d predicted in 2016 that Trump would win Michigan. Judging by social media memes, it was the eye roll seen ’round the world.
Just as Trump and some of his associates flout the rules, including those of traditional decorum and professionalism, the media appeared to do the same in their coverage this week following what truly was, well, a stunning development.
Comey’s termination came midway through an FBI investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and the possibility of collusion between those working on Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
Trump said in an uncharacteristically measured statement that the move was necessary to allow a “new beginning” at the FBI. Others in government, mostly Democrats, expressed outrage over his motives, questioning why now and is it time to bring in an independent investigator?
But it didn’t take long for the president we know to respond on Twitter: “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer stated recently, ‘I do not have confidence in him [James Comey] any longer.’ Then acts so indignant.#draintheswamp”
But is the media’s more emotional reaction to breaking news due to that other Trump effect — the one where professionalism takes a back seat to impulsivity?
Part of the president’s job is to set a tone for the country, and this is — in part — the tone he has set.
Several pundits across cable and network news had no qualms about using the term “Tuesday Night Massacre,” a reference to the “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973 when President Nixon ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
“Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd was at a rare loss for words Tuesday night on MSNBC’s “MTP Daily” over the news of Comey’s firing: “All I can say is, wow.”
And on Wednesday, while speaking with CNN political analyst David Gregory, Blitzer noted this about White House press secretary Sean Spicer : “It’s interesting, this [White House] briefing we’re about to see. It’s a really important day for the White House. Sean Spicer is doing his naval reserve duty at the Pentagon. He could have easily rescheduled that, but for some reason decided he wanted to go forward with that and let Sarah Huckabee Sanders do this briefing.”
Gregory cut in, “Yeah, I’d do it too, rather than face the questions, because the White House has an enormous credibility problem.”
The following day, after Trump’s NBC interview with Lester Holt — in which the president contradicted the official White House narrative of how Comey came to be fired — the television news media once again scrambled to cover the chaos. On Fox News, Shepard Smith chose his words as carefully as anyone can on three hours of sleep: “As a journalist, when you get conflicting stories … you have a tendency to look for the thing that makes the most sense.”
Were they screaming, “Lock him up!”? No. But they were breaching usual standards by expressing raw exasperation, dismay and confusion.
Part of the fast-and-loose reactions to the breaking news (one big tsunami wave, then dozens of smaller, 20-footers) is that things were moving at such a furious pace.
As a viewer or reader, if you tuned out for more than an hour, it took some research to keep up with the rapid-fire references and memes generated by the raw, seemingly off-the-cuff coverage
Spicer’s sudden absence Wednesday from one of the most anticipated news briefings in recent memory inspired mention of his name above a popular GIF of Homer Simpson disappearing stealthily into bushes.
“Stick of dynamite” became a searchable term on Twitter minutes after Sanders mentioned more than once that Comey’s actions were akin to “throwing a stick of dynamite” in the Department of Justice.
And then there were the hockey analogies.
They were bandied about on TV and social media after CBS released footage of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, fresh off the ice in hockey gear, doing his best to avoid directly answering questions about the Comey story.
Truly, we needed a guide to keep up with all the “strange optics,” (CNN’s senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny’s term, not mine).
But as politics, partisanship and messaging out of the White House have become more extreme, so has the coverage.
1:15 p.m. May 11: This article was updated to include reactions from Shepard Smith.
This article was originally published at 6:05 p.m. May 10.