To understand the challenges facing the media in the age of Donald Trump, consider how outlets have covered the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Officially, the administration claims that the president lost faith in Comey over his handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe last year. There are plenty of reasons to doubt that explanation. The unavoidable fact is that Trump has just removed one of his chief political adversaries — the man leading the federal investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
This situation raises some common newsroom quandaries: How much should reporters push back on government narratives that don’t seem to make much sense? How much context or interpretation should they add? Journalists deal with these dilemmas every day, often in subtle ways that are invisible to readers. But the Comey story offers a simple way to evaluate the media’s judgment, as well as its biases.
Call it the Comey test. Pull up any story about James Comey’s firing. Does it mention Russia in the first three paragraphs? Does it mention Russia at all? Or does it mostly regurgitate the administration’s point of view?
In a very, very simple version: Does it give the Russia angle more or less credence than Russian state media does?
In the scramble following Tuesday’s announcement, most major news organizations highlighted the Russia angle high up in their stories. The New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN, and NPR all mentioned Russia in the first sentence of their reports. The New York Times even put Russia in its front-page headline: “Trump Fires Comey Amid Russia Inquiry.”
Other outlets downplayed the Russia connection, choosing instead to foreground the administration’s claims that the firing was connected to the Clinton email investigation. The NBC News story doesn’t mention Russia until the fifth paragraph. The ABC News story first quotes liberally from the administration’s public statements, finally mentioning Russia in the 10th paragraph.
And then we have the right-leaning news sites. Breitbart talks about Comey’s Russia probe briefly in the 14th paragraph of its story. But there’s no word of Russia at all in the breaking news stories from the Daily Caller, a site started by conservative pundit Tucker Carlson. Glenn Beck’s website, the Blaze, hints vaguely at the investigation, telling readers that “Comey has been assailed by the left and the right for his recent actions.”
The Fox News website offers an interesting example of how conservative media outlets often function in a breaking news cycle. Initially, Fox published a story that reminded readers, right in the first paragraph, that Comey’s FBI “has been investigating whether Trump’s campaign had ties to Russia.”
That story appears to have been influenced by a report from the Associated Press, and it was quickly buried on the site later Tuesday evening with articles that mostly parroted the administration’s official narrative. For a while, the top story on the site was an analysis piece that explained, at length, the issues with Comey’s Clinton investigation, without once pointing out that Comey also had an ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign.
The right-wing media’s eagerness to ignore the Trump-Russia angle is striking in comparison with reports from actual propaganda outlets like Russia Today, which mentions the “alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election” by paragraph six of its story about Comey.
When Americans complain about bias in the media, they often imagine that the problem has to do with the creep of opinions into straight news stories. In a Pew survey last year, 59 percent of the public said the news should “present the facts without interpretation.”
It’s true that news outlets these days increasingly seek to help readers understand current events by injecting analysis and perspective. But a situation like the Comey firing illustrates how even just presenting the facts requires an act of news judgment.
It’s a fact that Comey was in charge of investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
In this case, most of the mainstream media decided that the Russia probe was one of the most important things for readers to know about James Comey. But some outlets downplayed this information, while others ignored it completely in favor of emphasizing the administration’s own rationale for firing Comey — that removing him “restores public trust and confidence” in the FBI.
But that explanation raises more questions than it answers. Because why now? What changed in Trump’s mind after he had publicly praised Comey and asked him to stay on after the election? And if the goal is to restore trust in the FBI, why would the president interfere with an FBI investigation into his own campaign?
It’s part of the media’s job to ask those questions.