JOURNALISTS, BATTERED AND GROGGY, FIND A RENEWED SENSE OF MISSION
White House misconduct. Sensational leaks. Battling broadsheets.
The swirling story around President Trump’s dealings with Russia is being compared in journalism circles to past blockbusters like Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky scandal — with a 21st-century twist.
News organizations like The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN are jousting for scoops, but instead of sending clerks to grab the early editions from newsstands, editors watch the news unfold on Twitter in real time. Anonymous sources are driving bombshell stories, but leaks are springing from encrypted iPhone messaging apps rather than from meetings in underground parking garages.
The news cycle begins at sunrise, as groggy reporters hear the ping of a presidential tweet, and ends sometime in the overnight hours, as newspaper editors tear up front pages scrambled by the latest revelation from Washington. In consequence and velocity, the political developments of the past four weeks — has it been only four weeks? — are jogging memories of momentous journalistic times.
“There is this sense of urgency and energy that I feel now that reminds me of being 29 and in a very different situation: in the middle of a revolutionary situation in Russia,” said David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, who was a correspondent for The Washington Post in Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union. “I’m not saying it’s a revolution now. But there is this uncertainty about what is happening minute to minute, day to day.
“There is this sense that every day is going to bring something startling, if not calamitous,” he added.
For journalists anxious about the state of their profession, there is a renewed sense of mission. Newspapers are seeing a sharp rise in subscriptions. Television news, once dismissed as a dinosaur in the internet age, is thriving. Rachel Maddow’s audience on MSNBC is up 79 percent from a year ago, with her show pulling more than two million viewers a night for the past two weeks. On Tuesday, Tucker Carlson of Fox News had more viewers than network shows like “New Girl” and “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
If the routine is energizing, it is also relentless. On Wednesday afternoon, the Atlantic staff writer Rosie Gray tweeted, “only 9 hours or so till the next massive newsbreak that will prevent us from having lives again.” Hallie Jackson, White House correspondent for NBC News, replied jokingly a minute later — “wuts a life” — to which Ms. Gray replied: “I remember vaguely there was a time when i had one.” By evening, Ms. Gray’s original message had been “liked” more than 850 times.
“The breathless pace of events reminds me of O. J. and Monica days,” said Jeffrey Toobin, who covered the O. J. Simpson murder trial and the scandal involving Ms. Lewinsky for The New Yorker. “The way both journalists and consumers feel kind of overwhelmed by the pace of developments. This feeling of, ‘Well, can’t it just stop for a while?’”
Even people paid to satirize politics find themselves agog. On the Los Angeles set of “Veep,” the HBO parody series with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, writers and cast members rush to learn the latest news between takes. “Everyone’s on their phone,” said Frank Rich, the liberal columnist, who is an executive producer of the series.
The accelerated metabolism is nonpartisan. Many right-leaning news sites are covering every twist of the White House developments and resisting the notion that the administration is embroiled in a major scandal.
“Dear left: When everything is an outrage, nothing is an outrage,” Katie Pavlich, an editor at Townhall, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, adding of recent developments, “It isn’t Watergate.”
On “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday morning, Fox News hosts took aim at the leakers behind recent scoops. “They’re doing damage to all of us; these are national secrets,” said the anchor Ainsley Earhardt. Her co-host, Steve Doocy, said: “The president, the White House, Congress needs to do something about it.”
Apropos for a president enraptured by reality television, the White House drama has begun to resemble a kind of O. J. Simpson trial for politics, gripping the nation and minting a menagerie of unlikely celebrities.
The Simpson circus had Lance Ito, Robert Shapiro and Kato Kaelin. The Trump administration has Sean Spicer, the press secretary, whose afternoon news briefings now beat “General Hospital” in the Nielsen ratings. For the past two weekends, Mr. Spicer has been featured on “Saturday Night Live” in the form of a Melissa McCarthy impression that is already generating Emmy chatter.
Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, was an obscure Republican pollster before her logic-twisting defenses of Mr. Trump on television turned her into a household name. On Wednesday, the MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski said she would no longer interview Ms. Conway on her program, saying, “I don’t believe in fake news or information that is not true.”
What sets the Russia story apart from a typical media frenzy, journalists say, are the underpinnings of the allegations: Russian espionage and election meddling speak to grave questions of democracy and foreign policy. The image of a chaotic White House inner circle evokes troubled administrations in the past. “You have what seems to be a story of Watergate proportions,” Mr. Rich said, “married to this red hot Wild West of the new mediasphere.”
With the news industry in an all-out sprint since Inauguration Day, some journalists wonder if the pace will ever slow. Reporters who put down their smartphones for only a few hours can be dizzied by what they have missed. Mr. Remnick, of The New Yorker, said, “Exhaustion is not an option.”
“If you are already exhausted after three and a half weeks, you better buck up,” he said. “This is going to go on, and it’s going to go on in all kinds of directions.”