It's the visual imagery that usually dictates how a story plays on TV — as well as how viewers perceive it.
And the image driving a story about Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler being at a beach party where underage drinking took place is not the kind of visual with which any public official wants to be associated — especially one in law enforcement.
All the news conferences, like the one Gansler held Thursday, and all the words of spin the Democratic candidate for governor might muster won't change the storytelling power of a beach-party moment captured on Instagram.
It was fascinating to watch the story that The Sun broke play out across TV on Thursday as the networks and cable channels chased and re-shaped the report to the dictates of their medium.
Morning shows are, rather than about news, first and foremost about lifestyle, relationships and family. And so, co-host Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and then Willie Geist, Natalie Morales and Al Roker on NBC's "Today" framed the facts and images of the Gansler story within a round-table discussion about parenting.
The ostensible premise of both pieces: Did Gansler, the father of a 19-year-old at the party of graduating high school seniors, act responsibly in doing nothing?
And there was some discussion of that. But the "Morning Joe" segment, which ran for a whopping 7:02, was dominated by the image that ran in Thursday's Sun of half-naked teens dancing.
In the foreground were two young men and a young woman dancing on a table. The woman was between the two men, and they were all drenched in something. The man behind the woman was pressed against her, wearing a look of abandon if not ecstasy. Another young man, who was also drenched in something, was pounding his bare chest.
"I want to show you a photo from a teen party in Delaware," Brzezinski said six seconds into the report as the party image filled the screen.
"This is during Senior Week at a beach house in June," she continued. "Quite a bash. … Two guys dancing on a table with a woman, after being drenched with some kind of liquid. Teens confirmed that there was a lot of drinking at the party. If you look closely, there's a man in a white shirt holding up a cell phone. That is [Maryland] Attorney General Gansler, Douglas Gansler. He says he was there looking for his son. So, Gansler said he had no business stepping in to stop the party."
The image, which had been enhanced with a halo of light around Gansler's head once Brzezinski directed viewers to his image, was replaced by a blow-up version of a Gansler quote from The Sun story, "The question is, do I have any moral authority over other people's children at beach week in another state? I say no."
"So," Brzezinski said, "here are critics who wonder whether that version of the attorney general who made that statement ever met this version. Take a look."
And then, the screen filled with Gansler in a public service announcement, saying, "Hi, I'm Attorney General Doug Gansler. Alarmingly, kids typically begin to experiment with alcohol around age 12. Parents, you're the leading influence on your teen's decision not to drink. It's never too early to talk to your kids about smart ways to say no … ."
"Wow," one of her guests said when the PSA ended.
"Yeah, that could be a problem," said another. "Not good."
Brzezinski did talk about how "incredibly complicated" it is to be the parent of a teen. But, in TV terms, the only takeaway was the image of all those wet bare bodies and the attorney general of Maryland standing in the middle of them holding up a cell phone — and doing nothing to stop it.
Adding to the tableau was a logo MSNBC ran at the bottom of the screen.
The rectangular box had a picture of a party hat in one corner, with Gansler's face in the other. In between the hat and the face were the words: "Don't Stop The Party."
Alongside that rectangular box was another that said, "IT'S (NOT) MY PARTY. MD AG DEFENDS NOT STOPPING TEEN BASH."
All that was missing was the term "sex romp" to make it the perfect package — for the front of a British tabloid.
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.'"