The run-up to Attorney General William Barr’s news conference regarding the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the conduct of President Donald Trump suggested it was just one component part of a busy news day, something close to business as usual. And the broadcast — in which Barr stormily defended the President as not merely not cleared of collusion charges, but also the victim of an overzealous process — suggested that initial take was right. In presenting at some length and with heightened tone his thoughts on a document that would shortly be widely available, Barr ended up looking not dissimilar from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. He was a relentlessly on-message cheerleader. From his statements, one can impute much about the President’s state of mind but little of substance. It was a last-ditch attempt to control the conversation before the report goes public and can be read by anyone, from any angle.
All three broadcast networks opened their morning news programs with mention and brief discussion of what lay ahead, but all three had concluded that conversation within the first 10 minutes of the broadcast. “Today” pivoted to a weather report, “Good Morning America” to a story of a cave rescue, and “CBS This Morning” to a look at North Korea’s weapons test. Even within the 10 minutes of speculation about what lay ahead, the broadcasts seemed vaguely nonchalant, avoiding hyperbole about a press conference that seemed unlikely to shed much new light on the long slog of the Mueller investigation, and the subsequent release of a document that will take time to read and digest. “Lots of questions,” “Today’s” Savannah Guthrie mused towards the end of her coverage. “We’ll see how many will be answered today.” By the time the 9 o’clock hour began, “Today” was promoting not Barr — although NBC, like all broadcast networks, cut into coverage to air the news conference live — but the story of “two high school sweethearts who lost love and found it again.”
On cable, of course, the discussion rolled on, but even there, there was something short of the typical enthusiasm applied to matters of seeming consequence. “People expecting fireworks are going to be disappointed, aren’t they?” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked at 7:12 a.m. This is the sort of question one generally avoids when trying to keep an audience captive for hours (the Barr presser wasn’t to begin until shortly after 9:30 a.m.) matters little, as Scarborough surely knows: The core MSNBC audience was watching, regardless. (And all three cable networks, even, found time for other topics, with MSNBC and CNN airing interviews with 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and Fox News airing human-interest briefs on Rob Gronkowski and violent crime.)
Of course, there were countdown clocks, featured by both CNN and MSNBC over footage of an empty podium, but they felt somewhat unmotivated. The typical tricks of major breaking news coverage — including CNN’s split-screens and vast tables — were stymied by the fact that there was little to say about a conference reiterating Barr’s summation of a document no one had yet read. Only Fox News seemed to be having fun with the day, in their particular way, setting up a pre-emptive defense of Barr and asking why Democrats “are trying to paint him as some kind of lackey of the president.” A clip of liberal California congresswoman Maxine Waters, a frequent Fox News target, was used as an example of anti-Barr hysteria.
Barr had certainly given Fox News a heaping helping of red meat. Speaking in the President’s tongue — as tends to happen over time to all in his orbit — the A.G. repeatedly summarized easily comprehensible statements even more simply: “Put another way, the report found no collusion.” Or, later: “In other words, there was no evidence of the Trump campaign’s collusion.” (He did note that Mueller examined 10 cases of possible obstruction, a detail that was less foregrounded than the simple “no collusion” headline he kept returning to.) Flanked on one side by a blank-looking deputy A.G. Rod Rosenstein, Barr adopted a tone of preacherly piety as he said that the news of Trump’s exoneration “is something that all Americans can and should be grateful to have confirmed” — a remark whose passive-aggressiveness was only confirmed by the open aggression of the rest of his address. If Barr believed that all Americans would be put at ease by his interpretation of the report, he might have put less effort into defending the President on the President’s preferred terms. If it is coincidence that, immediately after Barr repeatedly used the term “no collusion,” the President tweeted a “Game of Thrones” meme featuring the phrase, it is only in that Barr has so thoroughly absorbed Trump’s manner of speaking that parallel thinking becomes not just possible but likely.
No wonder, then, that the networks were reluctant to push coverage of the event, that their hands seemed almost tied by the fact that it was of great public interest. Barr, in having his say before the report’s release, exerted a last bit of control over how it will be read. The challenge for networks the rest of this day will be to take their time to actually read what the report says, and to discuss it within its own context and not the one that Barr created through his widely disseminated perspective. TV news outlets would be wise to allow the report itself, and not one high-profile reader, have the last word.