White House misconduct; sensational leaks; battling broadsheets. The swirling story around US President Donald Trump’s dealings with Russia is being compared in journalism circles to past blockbusters such as Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky scandal — with a 21st-century twist.
News organizations such as the Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN are jousting for scoops, but instead of sending clerks to grab the early editions from newsstands, editors watch the news unfold on Twitter in real time. Anonymous sources are driving bombshell stories and leaks are springing from encrypted iPhone messaging apps rather than from meetings in underground parking garages.
The news cycle begins at sunrise, as groggy reporters hear the ping of a presidential tweet, and ends sometime in the overnight hours, as newspaper editors tear up planned front pages scrambled by the latest revelation from Washington. In consequence and velocity, the political developments of the past four weeks are jogging memories of momentous journalistic times.
“There is this sense of urgency and energy that I feel now that reminds me of being 29 and in a very different situation: in the middle of a revolutionary situation in Russia,” said David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, who was a correspondent for the Washington Post in Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“I’m not saying it’s a revolution now, but there is this uncertainty about what is happening minute to minute, day to day,” he said. “There is this sense that every day is going to bring something startling, if not calamitous.”
For journalists anxious about the state of their profession, there is a renewed sense of mission. Newspapers are seeing a sharp rise in subscriptions. TV news, once dismissed as a dinosaur in the Internet age, is thriving. Rachel Maddow’s audience on MSNBC is up 79 percent from a year ago, with her show pulling more than 2 million viewers per night for the past two weeks. On Tuesday, Tucker Carlson of Fox News had more viewers than network hits such as New Girl and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.
If the routine is energizing, it is also relentless. On Wednesday afternoon last week, the Atlantic staff writer Rosie Gray tweeted: “Only 9 hours or so till the next massive newsbreak that will prevent us from having lives again.”
Hallie Jackson, White House correspondent for NBC News, replied jokingly a minute later — “wuts a life” — to which Gray replied: “I remember vaguely there was a time when i had one.” By evening, Gray’s original message had been “liked” more than 850 times.
“The breathless pace of events reminds me of OJ and Monica days,” said Jeffrey Toobin, who covered the OJ Simpson murder trial and the scandal involving Lewinsky for the New Yorker. “The way both journalists and consumers feel kind of overwhelmed by the pace of developments. This feeling of, ‘Well, can’t it just stop for a while?’”
Even people paid to satirize politics find themselves agog.
On the Los Angeles set of Veep, the HBO parody series with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, writers and cast members rush to learn the latest news between takes.
“Everyone’s on their phone,” said Frank Rich, a liberal columnist, who is an executive producer of the series.
The accelerated metabolism is nonpartisan. Many right-leaning news sites are covering every twist of the White House developments and resisting the notion that the administration is embroiled in a major scandal.
“Dear left: When everything is an outrage, nothing is an outrage,” Katie Pavlich, an editor at Townhall, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday last week, adding of recent developments: “It isn’t Watergate.”
On Fox & Friends on Wednesday last week, Fox News hosts took aim at the leakers behind recent scoops.
“They’re doing damage to all of us; these are national secrets,” anchor Ainsley Earhardt said.
“The president, the White House, Congress needs to do something about it,” her co-host Steve Doocy said.
Apropos for a president enraptured by reality TV, the White House drama has begun to resemble a kind of OJ Simpson trial for politics, gripping the nation and minting a menagerie of unlikely celebrities.
The Simpson circus had then-judge Lance Ito and then-lawyer Robert Shapiro. Us President Donald Trump’s administration has White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, whose afternoon news briefings now beat General Hospital in the Nielsen ratings.
For the past two weekends, Spicer has been featured on Saturday Night Live in the form of a Melissa McCarthy impression that is already generating Emmy chatter.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway was an obscure Republican pollster before her logic-twisting defenses of Trump on TV turned her into a household name.
On Wednesday last week, MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski said she would not interview Conway on her program, saying: “I don’t believe in fake news or information that is not true.”
What sets the Russia story apart from a typical media frenzy, journalists say, are the underpinnings of the allegations: Russian espionage and election meddling speak to grave questions of democracy and foreign policy.
The image of a chaotic White House inner circle evokes troubled administrations in the past.
“You have what seems to be a story of Watergate proportions, married to this red hot Wild West of the new mediasphere,” Rich said.
With the news industry in an all-out sprint since Trump’s inauguration, some journalists wonder if the pace will ever slow. Reporters who put down their smartphones for only a few hours can be dizzied by what they have missed.
“Exhaustion is not an option,” Remnick said.
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