How TV anchors are preparing for the Mueller hearing

Posted at 9:23 PM, Jul 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-23 23:34:13-04

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here

Mueller in the hot seat

Is Wednesday the end of something — a two plus year investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s furious reaction to that investigation? Or is it the start of something — a new chapter in an impeachment battle and/or a sweeping probe into the origins of the probe?

Maybe we’ll have a solid answer to that question by this time tomorrow.

It’s been a long time

Special counsel Robert Muellerwas appointed 796 days ago. Wednesday will be day 797.

Mueller handed in his report to the DOJ 123 days ago. Wednesday will be day 124.

In other words: The public has been waiting a long time — I’d argue way TOO long — for this day of congressional testimony.

What to expect

Session one, in the House Judiciary Committee, should start at 8:30am and last about three hours. Mueller will have an opening statement.

Session two, with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, is expected to start around 12 and last for two to two and a half hours. C-SPAN will be providing four camera angles for each hearing…

Where to watch

CNN: “New Day” starts at 5am with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman live from DC… then Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper lead day-long live coverage…

CBS: “High Stakes and History” is the title for the coverage. Norah O’Donnell will start anchoring at approximately 8:15…

ABC: A special report will start at 8:30, anchored by George Stephanopoulous, with David Muir reporting from the Capitol…

PBS: Day-long coverage, anchored by Judy Woodruff, begins at 8:30am…

NBC: A special report will start at 8:15am, led by Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd…

MSNBC: At 8:30 “Morning Joe” will hand off to Brian Williams and Nicolle Wallace in NYC, joined by Ari Melber in DC…

Fox News: Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will anchor live coverage starting at 8:15am… As TVNewser noted here, “Fox News will also provide coverage of the hearings to Fox broadcasting stations…”

Washington Post: A live stream on the Post website, YouTube and Twitch starting at 8am, anchored by columnist Emily Heil, with numerous guests…

Here’s how anchors are preparing

I asked new “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell what she’s doing to prep — she replied, “Reading, reading, reading. I bought the bound version of the report on Amazon, and the abridged version by Thomas Patterson, and our special events team put together an excellent briefing book ahead of our coverage.”

And here’s how PBS “NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff is preparing: “I am going back through my files from our coverage of the original Mueller report and reading selected parts of that, as well as also re-reading parts of the report itself.”

For the record, part one

— Trump trashed Fox again on Tuesday evening… This time complaining about Martha MacCallum’s “softball” questions for Eric Swalwell… “Fox sure ain’t what it used to be. Too bad!”

— Then he added: “Oh well, we still have the great @SeanHannity who I hear has a really strong show tonight.”

— Josh Feldman writes: “Sean Hannity gave a ‘tutorial’ to Republicans on what to ask Robert Mueller tonight, and he threw out dozens and dozens of questions for them…” (Mediaite)

— One of the banners on MSNBC’s “Hardball:” “Mueller to face die-hard Trump supporters in Congress.” Chris Matthews talked about “the show” GOP lawmakers will be “putting on for Fox…” (Mediaite)

— Mark Joyella’s headline combating recent B.S., sparked by MSNBC contributor Joyce White Vance, about Fox’s coverage plans: “No, Fox News is not too ‘scared’ to carry Robert Mueller’s live testimony…” (Forbes)

— NYT’s Peter Baker and Sheryl Gay Stolberg with the bottom line: “It could prove to be riveting television. The real question, however, is whether it changes anyone’s mind in a highly polarized country.” (NYT)

Why it matters

Hearing from Mueller is important, “even if it does nothing other than reiterate what’s in his report,” Margaret Sullivan writes. “And this new round of media coverage is important, too, if only because it can clarify and drive home what Mueller originally said.”

Focus on substance, avoid the smoke

How should newsrooms approach hearing? Wednesday’s Mueller biographer Garrett Graff told me: “The media needs to stay focused on the *substance* of the hearing, not the circus. The GOP is going to try to throw up as much mud and smoke as they can, but we know most of their pet theories (Chris Steele!) have already been debunked. The GOP’s goal is to make this as muddy as possible. Don’t help them. Don’t let them distract.”

How many people will tune in?

Dramatic day-long hearings that are shown on broadcast and cable generally reach a cumulative audience in the tens of millions. Not everyone watches the entire time, of course. And some people go out of their way to avoid the coverage. Anyone who’s expecting “most” of the county, a majority of Americans, to stop what they’re doing and watch… well, they’re setting expectations way too high.

But hearings can and do draw a significant audience. About 16 million people tuned in for Michael Cohen’s testimony earlier this year, according to Nielsen. And that total is the average audience for every minute of the hearing, so the hearing’s overall “reach” was much higher…

Brian Lowry’s take

Lowry emails: An unpopular thought: Mueller’s live congressional testimony will be less significant, ultimately, than the hours of analysis and soundbites that will be devoted to its aftermath, playing and replaying the highlights. And because those key moments will be viewed largely through people’s usual preferred outlets and ideological prisms, the potential to change minds or open eyes is more limited than some of the pregame coverage would suggest.

Elaina Plott comes to a similar conclusion — albeit from a different angle — in this article for The Atlantic, saying that Attorney General William Barr’s spin was highly effective, and that Democrats will find it difficult to “make Mueller’s words resonate when, in an era defined by the laws of entertainment, they may well have missed their moment.”


Trump is scheduled to travel to West Virginia for an evening fundraising committee reception. There’s a possibility he will speak to the press corps while leaving the White House…

135 days

Normally, on a weekday of historical import, a White House would want to hold a press briefing to tell its side of the story and answer all manner of questions. But not this White House. Wednesday will be day 135 without a formal on-camera press briefing.

→ Related: One month into her new job as W.H. press secretary and comms director, Stephanie Grisham “has not appeared on Fox News” or held a televised briefing or “taken reporters’ questions in a gaggle from the White House driveway,” Politico’s Nancy Cook notes, in a piece titled “the president’s silent spokesman.”

→ Key graf: “As for those seemingly dead daily briefings? Several senior administration officials stressed the president — and he alone — decides if and when those will reappear, even occasionally.”