If you want to know how good or bad a news organization really is, study it in its moments of stress — coverage of a huge story, an internal ethical or financial crisis, a big public failure, like being dead wrong on a major story.
The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump has become a stress test for cable news channels. News was breaking so fast on so many fronts that the split screen technique wasn’t enough to keep viewers in the loop.
A New York Times report Sunday night on a book manuscript written by former national security adviser John Bolton, reportedly detailing how the president purposely held up millions in security assistance to Ukraine, hit cable news like a hurricane Monday morning. And then came John Kelly, one of Trump’s former chiefs of staff, lighting up coverage by backing Bolton.
At 12:50 p.m. EST Monday, MSNBC went from a split screen to a three-part screen, and that was just to cover the trial. One frame showed what was going on outside the Senate chamber, where the trial was about to resume. Another showed a press conference area in the Capitol, where members of Congress were starting to speak. And a third carried a studio discussion among a panel of legal and political analysts anchored by Brian Williams and highlighted by comments from former Democratic senator Claire McCaskill.
MSNBC could have used four or five screens, as Williams interrupted the mid-day conversation in the studio to bring correspondent Geoff Bennett onscreen with new information on how key Republican senators were reacting to Bolton’s bombshell.
As for a fifth screen, a short time later, MSNBC was on the campaign trail in snowy Iowa, only a week out from the Iowa caucuses. In a normal news week, Iowa would have been wall to wall on MSNBC. This week, it has to fight for any screen time.
CNN was equally all in, shaking up its lineup for rolling coverage and superb analysis, particularly from chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and chief political correspondent Dana Bash.
It wasn’t just that cable news seemed to be everywhere: It did good work in most of those places.
Even Fox News and the Fox Business Network offered something positive. As the two channels went into damage control, saying Bolton was now a “tool” for the Democrats whose claims didn’t matter because he was just trying to hustle a book, anchor Chris Wallace offered a different analysis.
“If you want a sense of how big the news is that we’ve heard in the past 12 to 14 hours, listen to the Trump supporters … spinning like crazy that it isn’t big news,” Wallace said on Fox News.
And, as The Sun reported Tuesday, Fox News did give airtime to a few Democrats, including Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen.
Both acts, minor as they were compared to the bulk of Fox coverage, were denounced by Trump.
But here’s the statistic that says the most about Fox coverage: From Jan 21-25, CNN and MSNBC each carried about 90 percent of the trial live, while Fox News carried about 54 percent, according to analysis by Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog group.
Why would any media outlet that has the word “news” in its title not give citizens as much information as it could about a matter as monumentally important as impeachment?
Here’s the good-news media takeaway for me: For all the tumult in our business and the president’s war on truth, legacy media can still deliver the goods in serving democracy.
It took a legacy print institution to do the heavy lifting in breaking the Bolton news. But then cable TV did what it does best in swarming the story from every angle and driving it to the front of national consciousness.
David Zurawik is a TV/media critic at The Baltimore Sun.