For nearly three hours on Thursday, many Americans turned their attention to the engrossing, absorbing spectacle that was James Comey, the former FBI director, giving his first public remarks since President Donald Trump fired him one month ago. One of the nation’s top law-enforcement officials was poised to divulge damaging information about a president accused of trying to influence a federal investigation into his campaign’s ties to a foreign government—and the people weren’t going to miss it.
The room hosting the congressional hearing could seat less than 100 people. Live-streams, broadcast from cable-news channels, regular television networks, and numerous social-media sites and other places online, accommodated many more, turning computer screens into front-row seats to the action. They also provided the public with something that, in the quiet moments before the opening gavel struck, felt almost unusual in the noisy, cluttered, and deeply divided environment that has come to be the norm in political news.
News consumers would be watching alongside reporters, rather than waiting for a handful of national news organizations to publish bombshell scoops. A live-stream offered the public an unedited, unfiltered, and uninterrupted space, a drop of transparency in a sea of tweets and “fake news.”
Not accounting for any spin coming from the people inside the room, what you saw was what you got.
Viewers brought their own biases to the live-streams, of course, their minds perhaps made up long ago about who’s to blame for the current state of affairs. The same live-stream won’t look the same to Fox News viewers and MSNBC fans. But people’s understanding of newsworthy events, as the country has learned over and over in the last year, can become influenced by the smallest forces of news dissemination. Research has shown readers’ perceptions of news stories can be distorted after reading the comments, home to the kind of caustic discourse and debate that has increasingly moved into other parts of media. On cable networks, anchors and commentators chime in, showing viewers real-time action through their own, sometimes narrow, lens. On Twitter, users fire off commentary atop clips and GIFs. A small chyron, the ticker of text at the bottom of a screen, can make a huge difference:
Those two chyrons refer to a line of questioning from Jim Risch, a Republican senator from Idaho. Risch asked about a conversation, described in memos written by the former FBI director and leaked to the press, in which Comey said Trump asked him to shut down the FBI’s investigation of the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his alleged ties to Russian officials. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump said, according to the memo.
“Now, those are his exact words, is that correct?” Risch asked Comey.
“Correct,” Comey replied.
“He did not direct you to let it go?” Risch followed up.
“Not in his words, no,” Comey said. Risch pressed him further.
“I mean, this is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this,” Comey said. “I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.
“You may have taken it as a direction but that’s not what he said,” Risch said.
Comey appears to suggest that Trump wanted him to end the inquiry into Flynn, but didn’t explicitly direct him to do so. The live-stream told that story, confusing as it might be, but the networks, in their chyrons, cherry-picked what parts to highlight; in the process, they seemed to offer their respective viewers two completely different interpretations. The Washington Post scraped all the chyrons shown during the hearing by three networks—MSNBC, CNN, and Fox—and published them alongside each other, revealing the alternate realities among them.
Perhaps the quietest place to watch the Comey hearing was on C-SPAN, the no-frills network that has spent decades solely streaming government proceedings, and especially congressional hearings. C-SPAN has its own set of anchors and guests on its morning show, but they get out of the way when the action begins on Capitol Hill, at the White House, and elsewhere. C-SPAN is indeed a provider of news, but even Trump could hardly call it “dishonest.” A Washington Post article from 1989 marking C-SPAN’s 10th anniversary describes the network as “America’s town hall,” a nod to the nature of live-streaming that puts some of the power of interpretation into the viewers’ hands first.
Live-streaming technology has been around since the 1990s, but the explosion the of internet and social media has propagated it to all corners of the world, bringing people closer to a broad spectrum of experiences. It has galvanized a stronger sense of immediacy not found with regular-old television, sometimes with distressing and confusing implications. The technology can capture such precious moments like the birth of a giraffe in New York, or a wedding that guests can’t attend. It can also capture some of the most harrowing aspects of humanity, like violent police shootings, a murder of an innocent bystander, or a teenager’s suicide. Live-streams have one thing in common; as they happen, there’s usually no one weighing in. It’s what comes after—the context, the outrage, the official statements, the attempts to understand or mislead—that can alter viewers’ perception of the footage.
After the Comey hearing was over, the live-streams went black. Journalists returned to pumping out analysis of the testimony to decipher and dissect for their viewers and readers, in their sometimes separate realities, the meaning of what they witnessed. C-SPAN, naturally, went back to streaming less interesting hearings. The other streams, the noisier ones tinged with filters and commentary, flowed on.