It was a jarring piece of television.
A major cable news network broke away from coverage of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to fact check in real time, calling out one of the nation’s most powerful senators.
During Wednesday’s hearing with Attorney General William Barr about the Mueller report, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham said, “No collusion. No coordination. No conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government regarding the 2016 election.”
As Graham continued to talk, MSNBC split the screen to show anchor Brian Williams, who told viewers, “We’re reluctant to do this, we rarely do, but the chairman of the Judiciary Committee just said that Mueller found there was no collusion. That is not correct. Nicolle Wallace, the report says collusion is not a thing they considered. It doesn’t exist in federal code.”
Then MSNBC political analyst Nicolle Wallace ripped into Graham, including this comment: “I’m sorry, Lindsey Graham, but your defensiveness is showing. To talk about everything that went into it and in the next breath distort it is a stunning, stunning mischaracterization of what the whole exercise is supposed to be about.”
All along, Graham continued to talk, although viewers could not hear what he was saying.
MSNBC wasn’t done.
Later, it again stepped away from the hearing and again Williams acknowledged that the intention always is to show as much of the proceedings as possible without interruption. This interruption was to call out Barr or, as Williams said, “Correct some of the record.”
That’s when Williams pitched it to Wallace, who said, “I’m not going to dance around this, he’s lying.” She went into detail about Barr’s testimony. Then MSNBC began a panel discussion while Barr, with his audio to MSNBC viewers turned off, continued talking on the split screen.
Williams said, “Again, we do this reluctantly.”
Some might argue that networks should do more of this kind of thing. They should cut away to point out a misleading statement or outright lie. Maybe they are doing a public service by telling viewers that what they are seeing and hearing is not true. You might even argue that it’s their duty to alert viewers of falsehoods.
Perhaps the media, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote last year, should be more aggressive about pointing out lies while covering the current administration. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote Wednesday that the “press is supposed to hold powerful figures accountable for their misdeeds,” and in order to do so, “can’t engage in business as usual.”
Or should networks allow speeches and hearings to play out in their entirety before commenting?
If the point of a network airing a senate or congressional hearing is to give its audience an unfiltered and unedited view of government proceedings, interrupting it with commentary defeats that purpose. Viewers should be able to watch without disruption. There’s plenty of time later for networks to revisit and critique the pivotal moments. First, however, viewers should have the complete story — or, this case, the complete testimony.
Also, if MSNBC establishes the precedent of calling out Barr, does it then have an obligation to cut in every time anyone lies or mischaracterizes something for the rest of these particular proceedings?
If a network tells its audience ahead of time that it’s going to give a running commentary and/or do up-to-the-minute fact-checking, viewers know what they are in for. Otherwise, the expectation should be that viewers aren’t going to be disturbed.
This isn’t about whether or not networks should call out lies. It’s about when they should do so.
It was interesting that when MSNBC did cut away, Williams said the network was “reluctant” to do so.
Maybe there’s a good reason. Maybe it’s because it’s not such a great idea.