But I am not criticizing MSNBC. In the language of TV news, a predominantly visual enterprise, that image of the party was irresistible. It begged for such language. And nothing Gansler said in the Sun story in any way demanded that it be given more context.
Later, at 3:16 p.m on CNN, it took the producers of segment featuring anchor Brooke Baldwin and guest Erin Cox, one of the Sun reporters who broke the story, all of 23 seconds to get to the picture.
As Cox started to reply to a question from Baldwin seeking background on the party, the screen filled with the image of Gansler and the teens, and it looked to be cropped even tighter to focus viewers’ attention on the table-dancing trio and the guy in the white shirt with the halo of light around his head and a cell phone in his hand.
The headline box under the images of Baldwin and Cox said: “STATE’S TOP LAW ENFORCER AT TEEN PARTY.” And underneath: “Gansler: Didn’t break it up, didn’t know if teens were drinking.”
The “didn’t know if teens were drinking” line, which came from Gansler’s damage-control news conference Thursday afternoon, drew this response from Philip Snyder, a former prosecutor, who was also one of Baldwin’s guests during the segment with Cox.
“I just want to say it looks like a Miley Cyrus party,” Snyder began.
“I can’t believe this attorney general is actually saying, ‘I didn’t know — there could have been Kool-aid in those cups,’” he continued, referencing another statement from Gansler’s press conference.
“And what disturbs me so much is that his moral compass is all the way to the left on empty,” Snyder added, descriptively mixing metaphors. “He does a PSA saying, ‘I’m supporting these harsher drinking laws for people under 18, for juveniles. And then, he goes to this party that’s clearly serving hard alcohol and beer, and he does nothing.”
By the time “ABC World News Tonight” with Diane Sawyer came on Thursday night, the photo was cropped so skillfully the whole frame seemed to be Gansler and the bare, upper portions of the wet dancers. The bottom and top of the early image had been cut, so that you only saw the dancers from the waist up.
ABC further enhanced its coverage with a second photo that shows two teens on a table twerking with what appears to be Gansler looking at them — not at his cell phone in this frame.
The headline underneath says: “UNDERAGE DRINKING. OFFICIAL BLASTED FOR SON’S PARTY.”
Snyder’s remark on CNN about it looking “like a Miley Cyrus party” might have been getting a little help from the folks in the editing bays by the end of the day.
But it was a dead-on description of the pop-culture filter that some viewers were surely applying to the picture of those teen dancers and the guy in the white shirt who had a much better chance of being Maryland’s governor before his image was published in The Sun and cycled through 24 hours of TV journalism.
Gansler’s day of deadly TV optics ended with Jay Leno’s “Tonight” show.
“I love this story,” Leno said in his monologue. “Maryland’s Attorney General, a guy named Douglas Gansler (he mispronounced it as Gangsler) is under fire for allegedly attending a party that included underage drinking… When confronted about this, Gansler said he couldn’t remember if there was drinking at the party. Couldn’t remember. So, it sounds like it must have been a helluva of a party if he couldn’t remember.”
And then, the original picture with Gansler holding the phone came on the screen again with a giant arrow pointing at Gansler in the middle of the teen madness.
“This is great,” Leno continued. “Here’s an actual picture from the party. Yeah, that’s the attorney general there. And he didn’t know if there was any drinking going on? Even Miley Cyrus called and said, ‘Hey, keep it down. Will ya? Jeez.’”