Part 1—Watching a bombshell be born: The New York Times' latest "bombshell report" entered the world as a case of BREAKING NEWS.
Guillermo del Toro could hardly have done it better! The journalistic Gill-man swam to the surface last Thursday night, on CNN, at 8:21 PM Eastern.
Anderson Cooper sat in the anchor chair when the monster swam into view. Let's review the chronology:
At 8:18 PM, Cooper returned from break. At home, on your TV screen, a chyron announced the segment's first BREAKING NEWS:
BREAKING NEWSSunlen Serfaty reported this first bit of breaking news. To review the transcript, click here.
PRESIDENT TRUMP PROPOSES PATH TO "CITIZENSHIP" FOR DREAMERS IN RETURN FOR BORDER WALL AND AN IMMIGRATION CRACKDOWN
At 8:21, the chyron changed, as did the reporter. The new chyron announced a second piece of "breaking news:"
BREAKING NEWSGloria Borger came on to report this second piece of "breaking news."
PRESIDENT'S LAWYER SAYS HE'LL DECIDE ON ANY MUELLER INTERVIEW
And then, good lord! At 8:22 PM, the Gill-man swam into view.
Suddenly, Borger's report was old hat. A new chyron reported a third piece of breaking news:
BREAKING NEWSThat's what the third chyron said. Shoving Borger to the curb, Cooper turned to this newer breaking news. He started by telling us this:
NY TIMES: PRESIDENT TRUMP ORDERED MUELLER FIRED, BUT BACKED OFF WHEN WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL THREATENED TO QUIT
COOPER (1/25/18): Right, Gloria. There's actually more breaking news happening right now. I believe we have Maggie Haberman on the phone. Do we have Maggie?There was actually more breaking news! This breaking news was a breaking story that was just breaking now!
COOPER: Maggie Haberman for the New York Times is on the phone. Maggie, what's this breaking story that's just breaking now?
If we might borrow from our Homer, such was the birth of the New York Times' latest "bombshell report." Recalling Moses in the rushes, it came to life last Thursday night as a humble piece of BREAKING NEWS.
At this point, we offer a small observation. Almost everything on cable news is now called "breaking news."
Under this industry rubruc, a news report isn't really important if it's just breaking news. A news report becomes important if it's called a "bombshell report," or perhaps if it's called "explosive."
At 8:22 last Thursday night, the new report by the New York Times was moving toward that status, but the status had not yet been conferred.
It wasn't yet a bombshell report. Already, though, in Cooper's assessment, it was "really huge:"
HABERMAN (continuing directly): Sure. My colleague Mike Schmidt and I—and thanks for having me—just reported that the president last June ordered the White House counsel Don McGahn to fire the special counsel Robert Mueller. McGahn protested and threatened to quit if he was ordered to go through with this. The president ultimately backed down.Haberman told the air-filled story almost exactly as it was told in the newly-posted news report at the New York Times site. But it was still just BREAKING NEWS. No one had called it a bombshell yet, though Cooper was leaning that way by calling it "really huge."
This is the first time that we know of, Anderson, of the president actually engaging in this and doing what has been seen as an option he was keeping open, and he was very consciously keeping it open last July in an interview at The Times in the Oval Office. He has since said, "No, I'm not thinking of firing Robert Mueller." Obviously, it would have created a massive earthquake had he done so.
COOPER: So, I mean, let's just repeat this, because this is, this is really huge.
Long story short! The BREAKING NEWS wasn't deemed a "bombshell" until Thursday's 10 PM hour. During the rest of Cooper's hour, he brought forth a panel of pundits to discuss the report, which no one had really had time to read, digest or analyze.
That may explain a pair of illogical comments by Cooper's fearless panel—first by the highly experienced Carl Bernstein, then by the 25-year-old Kaitlan Collins, whose youth and good looks (by conventional norms) have nothing to with the fact that she is CNN's White House correspondent, despite her fairly remarkable lack of experience. (Five months as The Daily Caller's White House correspondent, or so the leading authority says.)
When exactly will "time be up" on this fairly obvious, exploitative "cable news" practice? We can't answer your question! Let's return to our tick-tock on the invention of the latest bombshell:
People, whenever BREAKING NEWS occurs, pundits rush to their battle stations to start to blather about it. They haven't had a chance to read, think or analyze the new report. But so what? Quickly, they start to assess it.
Called upon for an instant reaction, here's what the young, inexperienced Collins said. In fairness, it was very much like a peculiar assessment the grizzled old Bernstein had already given:
COOPER: It was interesting though, Kaitlan. Yesterday, in that 15-minute off-camera discussion the president had, answering questions to reporters, he described all the actions, which others might describe as attempts at obstruction, he described it as "fighting back."You're right! That highlighted assessment doesn't make sense, except as pleasing narrative.
COLLINS: Exactly. That's how he saw it, not as tampering or obstruction of justice, but he he saw it as "fighting back." But it's interesting to look at what the president has said privately about Robert Mueller, according to Maggie's reporting, and what he's said publicly, because he's said publicly many times that he was not going to fire him, he had no plans to fire him. His spokesman have also echoed that. And just last night, during that briefing with reporters, he said he was looking forward to sitting down with him, he was happy to testify under oath to wrap all of this up. So it's very interesting to see that publicly he's saying of course he's cooperating, he's happy to sit down, but in private he's threatening to fire him.
Uh-oh! Collins was comparing things Trump and his lawyers have said in recent months about his intentions to something he (reportedly) did on one occasion last June. She made it sound like what he (reportedly) did last June is something he's repeatedly doing in private right now.
"It's very interesting to see that...in private he's threatening to fire him?" Collins used that obvious misstatement to drew an invidious comparison, relying on an account that isn't what "Maggie's reporting" had said.
Perhaps it was Collins' stunning inexperience which led her to make this groaning error. In fairness, though, Bernstein had already said something quite similar and, on one or two points, it wasn't clear that Haberman knew what her own report said. So it routinely goes in cable news breaking discussions.
When Cooper went off the air at 9 PM, the report still wasn't a bombshell. During the 9 PM hour, Rachel Maddow called it a "blockbuster new report," but it fell to Don Lemon to detonate the industry's most exalted phrase.
At 10 PM sharp, Chris Cuomo threw to Lemon. Bombshell status was quickly conferred:
CUOMO (1/25/18): Our coverage continues right now. CNN Tonight with Don Lemon.It was no longer merely "breaking," nor was it merely "hugely significant."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news!
LEMON: And it is bombshell breaking news on the Russia investigation. Really!
This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon.
And this is hugely significant. The president, President Trump ordered Robert Mueller, the special counsel heading up the Russia investigation, fired this past June and the only thing that stopped him was when his own White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit rather than carry out the order.
This story was first reported by the New York Times, which also reports that Mueller learned about his near firing only in the past few months as his investigators interviewed current and former senior White House officials.
It has now been confirmed by at least two other news organizations. We have all of the breaking news for you. But I want to get right to the New York Times Maggie Haberman and CNN as well. And she joins me by phone. Maggie, thank you so much for joining us.
As I said, this is bombshell breaking news.
It was now "bombshell breaking news." Status had been conferred.
One hour later, Brian Williams called the report a bombshell on MSNBC. By the next morning, everyone agreed.
At 4 AM, CNN's Early Start came on the air; Christine Rimans called it a bombshell. Two hours later, CNN New Day began like this:
CAMEROTA (1/26/18): This is New Day. It is Friday, January 26, 6 a.m. here in New York. Chris is off. John Berman joins me. Another day, another bombshell."Another day, another bombshell." An industry secret may lurk in that remark.
BERMAN: Yes. We've got new developments just in.
CAMEROTA: We sure do! So we begin with breaking news for you. President Trump is denying the bombshell reports that he tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June.
Can we talk? Our cable news channels are in the business of selling us BREAKING NEWS. They're also in the business of selling us "bombshell reports," especially where BREAKING NEWS may seem to support preferred scripts, story-lines and claims.
In this case, they rushed to affirm an air-filled news report, the latest of the many Hostess Twinkies Schmidt and Haberman have baked in recent years.
Alas! For analysts who are able to read, the news report in Friday's Times was very fuzzy and highly imprecise. On Friday night, a major player would speak with Lawrence. This player would offer a whole new take on this fuzzy, air-filled report.
No matter! By Friday night, all other pundits and cable stars agreed. The Times report wasn't just "breaking news," it was a bombshell report! On CNN, they said it all day. On Friday night, at least three MSNBC hosts repeated the characterization.
All over cable, the stars agreed. This was a bombshell report.
No one said the report was fuzzy. No one said it was full of air. Tomorrow, though, we're going to show you what Michael Wolff said to Lawrence last Friday night. On Wednesday, we'll turn to the New York Times' text-in-itself to show you what front-page reporting looks like when it actually isn't real sound.
Meanwhile, is it possible that older, more experienced, more capable women are being kept off the air so CNN can provide us with youthful players like Collins? Have cable bosses decided that, if they're selling us bombshell reports, they should also maybe perhaps have a few "bombshell reporters?"
Collins offered a weak assessment that night, but then again, so did Bernstein before her. It's all a part of the corporate strategy which they sell us BREAKING NEWS, in which pundits go on the air and invent the latest bombshell.
They hadn't had time to read the report. They hadn't had time to think about it, whatever good that might have done.
The report itself was full of air. That said, what else is new?
Tomorrow: Michael Wolff speaks with Lawrence