Journalism has been called the first rough draft of history, but last week it felt more like an adrenaline-fueled doodle on Snapchat — scribbled in one frantic instant only to disappear the next.
The media world was blown off its axis as President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey on Tuesday, unleashing a hurricane of assertions, counterclaims, obfuscations and threats.
The news cycle, once a stately 24 hours, was reduced to mere seconds. It was hard for dizzied news consumers to know what, or whom, to believe.
That’s bad. Worse yet is they may decide it’s not worth caring.
“Most Americans absorb Washington news with an approach of ‘Wake me up when you people stop fighting,’ “ said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under George W. Bush.
“There is a big difference,” he told me, “between Washington insiders who are hanging on every development and Americans who don’t have TVs on their assembly lines or in their cubicles.”
While not intensely focused on the news, he said, people are well aware of the overall chaos.
And, oh, it was chaotic. First, Tuesday’s out-of-the-blue firing, followed by the initial rationale offered by White House spokespeople and Vice President Mike Pence, which was followed by the president’s own conflicting explanation.
No sooner was that absorbed than a new story line opened up — did Trump inappropriately ask for loyalty from Comey? Were there White House recordings of conversations that proved he didn’t?
Politicians and journalists hyperventilated, but in Robeson County, North Carolina — which voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and flipped last year to Trump — most people shrugged it off, according to the roving photojournalist Chris Arnade.
Comey’s name came up “but it was so, so removed from facts,” Arnade said. Most saw this latest chapter as Trump being Trump: “Dude fires people.”
Or as substitute teacher Mark Adair told me: “It’s become background noise” for many in Niagara County, New York (another traditionally Democratic area that voted red last year), where he publishes a local football magazine. The uproar, he said, “doesn’t have one iota of an effect on me.”
That’s an utter disconnect from the inside-the-Beltway parsing of each development, and the Democratic outrage over Trump’s possible obstruction of justice — complete with references to Watergate and impeachment.
“I think many right-leaning folks, in particular, have decided the reporting and commentary from Washington has become shrill,” said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Meanwhile, she said, those on the left “are alarmed and exhausted.” Add it up and you’ve got a citizenry that has thrown up its hands.
“They’re confused, overwhelmed and frustrated,” Dalglish said. “They know that somebody’s lying. Is it the media or the White House?”
Many of the most prominent stories are based on leaks and anonymous sources, which means that news consumers have a hard time evaluating how true they are.
And in last week’s environment, even official sources speaking on the record were hard to believe.
At one point, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders stood before reporters and claimed that “countless” FBI agents had expressed to her their relief that Comey had been fired. Asked for details, she demurred.
But Matt Apuzzo was willing to offer a number. In a Facebook post, the New York Times reporter, who has covered the FBI for more than a decade, calculated the likelihood of her claim being true: “Precisely zero.”
And when Trump gave NBC’s Lester Holt details of conversations he claims to have had with Comey, there was more reason to doubt, given the president’s relationship with the truth. (The Washington Post’s Fact Checker is keeping a running list of Trump falsehoods or misleading statements — 492 in the first 100 days.)
Meanwhile, the president’s accusations about “fake news,” a drumbeat on conservative media, deepen distrust of mainstream reporting.
Dalglish, previously the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is worried.
Democracies are fragile, after all. They need informed and engaged citizens to survive. “I’m afraid the frustrated public is tuning out and waiting for the storm to pass,” she said. “The problem is, it could be too late.”
And so the enduring image from the surreal week is not Russian officials (photographed by a Russian government staff member, no less) yukking it up with Trump in the White House.
It’s not Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein looking shellshocked on Capitol Hill.
It’s not even the jobless Comey puttering in his yard.
No, the enduring image is Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, half in shadow Tuesday night, as he told journalists to “just turn the lights off” so he could brief them without being filmed. Metaphors don’t get any better than that.
We’re only four months into this presidency. The lights need to stay on.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper.