Attorney General hearing kicks off a media extravaganza starring Obama and Trump
It was somewhat fitting: While Washington media was transfixed Tuesday by the first of a rapid-fire series of Trump Cabinet nomination hearings, "Let's Make a Deal" was playing on another channel.
As Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions was being grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, gameshow contestants were being quizzed on less urgent matters: the number of floors in the White House.
Well, Sessions could know the answer (six). But he was focused on other things, such as charges of past racism and his thumbs-down views of Roe v. Wade, as a 48-hour media extravaganza commenced, including what amounts to a wrap-up and a rollout of administrations.
Sessions' meeting is the first of seven confirmation hearings that, to the chagrin of the minority Democrats, are scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday. They think that's too fast and precludes pre-hearing investigation of nominee's backgrounds, including financial and ethics questions.
But it's a fair bet that their frustration will be further piqued by the media, which has to deal with two other big events this week.
First there is President Obama's de facto farewell speech in his hometown of Chicago Tuesday evening. Then, on Wednesday, comes President-elect Donald Trump's belated first press conference since his election on a day of five other hearings that could inspire rhetorical fireworks.
It's hard to imagine what might be said at any of the individual hearings that could supersede either the speech or press conference: Sessions' pretty well-documented (and repeated Tuesday) views on abortion, voting rights, the Violence Against Women Act or any potential investigation of Hillary Clinton's email mess (he said he'd recuse himself)
There weren't many questions out of left field, at least in the early going, other than a very brief exchanges between the nominee and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) on online poker. There were a few esoteric queries from Graham, a former military lawyer, on the laws of war.
Still, the challenge of covering so much, especially for television, was clear. All the major cable channels had it easy Tuesday, with just the Sessions hearing underway. The day's other hearing, for Homeland Security nominee Retired General John Kelly would not commence until 3:30 p.m. Eastern and simply isn't as alluring at the Attorney General interrogation.
Ultimately, C-SPAN will be a godsend since, at minimum, it will air live all confirmation hearings on its website. Showing any of them on any of their three channels depends most importantly on whether there is any legislative action on the floors of either the House or Senate.
It's mandated to show any House floor action on C-SPAN1 and the Senate on C-SPAN2. Given the lesser carriage by cable operators of C-SPAN3, junkies are often limited relegated to the first two, at most, in some areas of the country. That why its website will be the place to go.
But there are plentiful alternatives via other websites, such as those of warhorse newspapers, including The New York Times and Washington Post. They were among the many carrying live video of Sessions, as well as live news and analysis of his testimony.
That represents a sea change in the coverage of what tend to be orchestrated legislative spectacles, often lacking in much spontaneity and rife with political posturing, especially by the interrogating penal members.
The Times, for example, was terrific in the early going, with not just the video but a cadre of sharp reporters offering both live news but also analysis (at times the two were a bit hard to distinguish).
"This is classic Sessions," wrote Times reporter Matt Apuzzo in an ongoing live chat online. "If he could make this whole hearing about drugs and violent crime, he’d be thrilled. He’s a proud drug warrior, a man who spent more than a decade as a federal prosecutor during the worst of the crack epidemic."
Over on its simultaneous "briefing," one found, "Mr. Sessions assured his Senate colleagues that he would strictly adhere to the Constitution and stand up to the president if needed. He’s been consistent for years that senators should apply that test to Justice Department nominees."
But, even with unavoidable similarities at times, such coverage represents a big shakeup and, when well executed, a very positive one.
Having covered tons of such hearings on Capitol Hill, there is a wonderful, if pressure-filled freedom in quickly assessing and reporting the action these days. That's different than not too long ago when you might go into a hallway and call in some notes or simply await return to your desk to fashion a story several hours later.
The perils are self-evident. Speed may not kill but it can confuse, prompt analytical hyperbole and the prospective of measured context, at least in the moment. But, a quick glance at the early handiwork at the Sessions hearing didn't uncover any arguable or gross miscues.
So while the essence of many congressional spectacles remained Tuesday, especially the posturing by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was the technology that was the real and salutary difference.
And, too, there was the astonishing multiplicity of alternatives, even as the capital press may have felt they were at the center of the universe in checking in on the Sessions inquiry.
So, yes, you had "Winter Lip Sync Travel Trivia "on "Live With Kelly" and somebody trying to win a new $5,554 living room on "Let's Make a Deal "(replete with walnut hi-fi system).
C-Span had Trump, in a fashion, but it was a huge still photo of him? Huh?
Well, it was mandated to show proceedings on the House floor, which mean a string of self-serving five-minutes speeches by congressmen on anything they desired. In the case of Chicago Rep. Luis Gutierrez, it meant a mini-harangue against Trump for offensive words and actions toward women.
C-SPAN2 was liberated from any Senate floor and went with a rather tame Armed Services Committee hearing on civilian control of the military. There was, for sure, an important related question since the Senate plans to vote Thursday on whether to waive the usual seven-year waiting period after military service for Trump's pick for Defense Secretary.
But, when it was over, the camera lingered for a bit as reporters and others left the room. The spams of legislative drama on Capitol were on this day, as is often true, interspersed with lots of inaction, no matter how hard the press may seek good yarns to quickly transmit.