Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Comey coverage justifies any media overkill

The TV countdown clocks were up and running by Tuesday.

By Wednesday night, the cable channels had panels of eight or more talking heads in heated argument over testimony from former FBI Director James Comey that was published on the eve of his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee today.

This morning, no fewer than six channels and networks were offering live coverage of what was described on MSNBC as the “two-car motorcade” carrying Comey to Capitol Hill to testify.

Overkill? You betcha.

But I’ll take it in exchange for the energy and even passion of much of the coverage – as well as the civic knowledge offered to viewers and the insight on the alleged behavior of President Trump behind closed doors.

Wednesday night, CNN had Anderson Cooper presiding over one of those mega-panels so large a camera could barely get all the panelists in one shot. They were focused on the question of what constitutes obstruction of justice.

The eight experts sitting alongside Cooper included famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein and Jeffrey Toobin, legal correspondent for The New Yorker and CNN. As if that wasn’t enough talent, they brought in former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz on Skype from France.

Making a somewhat academic argument, Dershowitz insisted that the president not only did not commit obstruction of justice, but Constitutionally could never be charged with it for telling the FBI director to back off an investigation as Comey says Trump did in the FBI probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Toobin let Dershowitz hold the floor a long time by cable panel standards – until Cooper cut in to make some space for rebuttal.

“Respectfully, I could not think Alan is more wrong,” Toobin said. “And the simple response is Watergate. Under Alan’s theory ...”

At this point, after only 18 words from Toobin, Dershowitz started talking over him. And Dershowitz talks loud.

“Let me finish, Alan,” Toobin said politely but firmly, and then succinctly drove a stake through the heart of Dershowitz’s argument.

“Under your theory, since the FBI works for the president, he can tell them to do anything he wants,” Toobin said. “Well, in Watergate with President Nixon, they conspired, made an agreement to stop the investigation of Watergate. Was that a Constitutional authority? No. It was a crime. Several people went to jail ...”

This was a red-hot and splendidly illuminating discussion that bore directly on the core issue of today’s hearing – whether or not what Comey said the president asked him to do constitutes obstruction of justice.

And that didn’t even include input from Bernstein, one of the two reporters who dug up the facts to expose what Nixon did.

Class was still in session this morning on cable TV when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews summarized the larger storyline of today’s testimony by telling viewers what they are seeing is “the institutions of Washington coming up against a flamboyant president.”

Amen.

And what a pleasure it was to hear Comey providing what seemed like thoughtful, generally open answers about his interaction with the president after the stonewalling Wednesday by Trump administration intelligence officials before a Senate committee.

I sometimes hear complaints that civics is not taught in high school anymore. I don't know if that's true. But I do know that civics is being taught on cable TV with coverage like this.

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I am going to miss the countdown clocks tonight.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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