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.