One crucial aspect of White House reporting that often gets missed is what actually ends up getting on the air. That’s where the rubber meets the road and narratives are set.
At Tuesday’s White House Daily Briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney responded to Karl Rove’s smear of Hillary Clinton in blistering fashion, mockingly calling him “Dr. Rove,” and questioning Rove’s cognitive capacity.
Here’s how differently six television news outlets covered the exchange:
1. MSNBC: They were first to report the Carney dis, on Ronan Farrow Daily, and Farrow gave it the “Oh, snap!” treatment, while also reading a hot-off-the-wire response from a Clinton spox:
Kudos for being first, and for getting that Clinton statement so fast (how’d that happen?), but not so much for context. It was the beginning of the show, but it would have been good to mention that Hillary wasn’t in the hospital for 30 days, and maybe that Republicans’ previous conspiracy theory about the injury was that she’d completely faked it.
2. NBC Nightly News: Anchor Brian Williams teased the story with a giant “Smear Campaign?” graphic behind him, and Chuck Todd delivered a report on the kerfuffle as the batshit that it is, pointing out that “even Newt Gingrich couldn’t defend Rove.”
Neither MSNBC nor NBC Nightly News included Pete’s question in their packages. That’s messed up.
3. CNN: Erin Burnett gave Carney “full props” for being funny, and asked if the White House should even be engaging on this:
This might be one of the more important segments, because it includes not just CNN, but Politico’s Maggie Haberman, both of whom are influential in setting DC narratives. Both of them dismissed the substance of Rove’s comments, and validated the Clintons’ approach to them. Again, though, no Pete.
4. Fox News: Surprisingly, they played Carney’s slam, dismissing it as snark, then continuing to explain how candidates’ medical records are fair game:
Elsewhere, Fox commentators from Alan Colmes to Brit Hume have dismissed Rove’s comments as a partisan attack, but news anchors have continued to raise questions about Hillary’s recovery period. Fox News was the only outlet to actually air Alexander’s question.
5. CBS News: CBS News This Morning took a very newsy approach, augmenting Carney’s jab with a fact-check of Rove’s comments (noting that Hillary was on the hospital for 3 days, not 30), and including footage of Mrs. Clinton addressing her health scare in a 60 Minutes interview:
They also delved into the politics of this, noting that medical concerns are standard procedure in presidential campaigns. This is true, but baseless claims of brain damage are not.
6. ABC News: World News Now reported on Carney’s remark in brief, straightforward fashion, but the next day, Jon Karl delivered his own report on the Rove dustup. Note the differences:
One of the most frequent complaints I hear about White House reporters is the types of questions they ask, which is sometimes valid, such as when a reporter embeds falsehoods in his questions. Less valid, though, is the complaint that asking a question automatically confers legitimacy to its premise, as in the case of Pete Alexander’s Rove query.
I’m using this as an example because one of our commenters, Tom Blue, specifically asked about it, but you can apply the lesson more broadly. Tom correctly identified the end product, how the answer gets reported, as more important than the question itself.
The single most difficult part of the White House reporter’s job is getting the press secretary to say something, anything, that isn’t already in a press release, and in order to do that, we have to employ some serious kung fu. Despite our best efforts, though, about 98% of what happens at briefings never even makes it to air. This exchange is a great illustration of that, because Alexander actually asked Carney three questions on Tuesday, two-thirds of which went into the White House briefing crapper. When we do manage to jar something loose, however, it matters much more how news editors treat it, and how it gets reported.