Trump Russia Probe

Four pages of the Mueller Report lay on a witness table in the House Intelligence Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Thursday, April 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The report was nearly two years in the making and 448-pages long — likely one of the most anticipated legal and political documents in a generation. Prosecutorial jargon and blocks of redacted text waylaid readers on nearly every page, making it a dense tome to navigate.

But it was Mueller Report Day. And nobody had time for all that.

The special counsel's handiwork went live just after 11 a.m. EST, and, within minutes, members of the commentariat — on television, on the radio and online — were presenting the weighty report's "key takeaways," its "key points" and its "key lines." Most impressive of all, though: they likely churned out those lists before they even finished reading what Robert Mueller III had written about possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

On network and cable news, reporters performed this feat live, dropping a copy of the report on their set desks with an impressive thud, before reading it on air and attempting real-time analysis. It was the coverage plan media critics feared. Tom Jones, a senior media writer at Poynter, tuned in to see how journalists would handle the document dump.

As he flipped through a half dozen channels, the effect was at once comical and slightly disturbing: it was like a picture-in-picture-in-picture-in-picture, popcorn-reading portrait of the way the 24-hour news cycle chased the hottest and most important story since the 2016 election.

"It's like doing a book report while you're still reading the book," Jones said in an interview. "It makes for good drama, it's good television. But I don't know how responsible it is journalistically."

On one hand, Jones said, this is the way breaking news works in 2019. But, on the other, the gravity of the report magnifies the pitfalls of that approach.

"You're not going to get to the heart of it in one sentence," said Jones, whose Twitter account dutifully documented each anchor he saw reading aloud on TV. "It's been in the making for two years, it's written in legalese, with footnotes, and it's a very complicated document. There is no one sentence, there is no highlight, there is no way to boil this down to 20 words."

But that didn't stop some from trying anyway.

CNN analyst Chris Cillizza posted a link to the report on Twitter at 11:02, announcing "It's here." Then, 12 minutes later, he posted a link to "3 takeaways on Mueller Report Day." Stephen Miller, who has contributed to the National Review, highlighted that narrow time frame in a tweet. (Cillizza later added to his list of "takeaways" and wrote that he would update the tally as he "read through the report itself.")

Also minutes after the report's release, fellow CNN analyst Jake Tapper said on air that two of his coworkers, Laura Jarrett and Evan Perez, had "read the report."

These claims prompted Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief of the Columbia Journalism Review to ask, "What kind of speed-read training have CNN reporters received?"

"Neither reporter, of course, had been able to do that, given that the report was released minutes before they went on air," Pope wrote on a CJR blog. "As a point of differentiation, it's impressive: stay with CNN because we have read and can digest the Mueller document. As a point of fact, it's untrue."

Lauren Pratapas, a CNN spokeswoman, did not answer questions about the reporters' speed-reading ability or whether they had, at the time, "read the report."

On Fox News, Bill Hemmer and Sandra Smith leafed through pages while the chyron below them urgently advertised an "ALERT."

"Bill and I have the report with us," Smith said, looking down at a stack of papers. "We've split it up into halves, everyone is digging through this right now."

Meanwhile, on MSNBC, Ari Melber was the network's first to read from the report. He began by reading the title and then, haltingly, moving onto the table of contents. "This will be interesting," he said, "I'm going to read it live here with you."

Then, at the direction of anchor Brian Williams, one of the studio's cameras moved behind Melber's desk and peered over his shoulder as he read.

"What I can tell you," Melber said, as he carried on through the table of contents. "Again, that I'm getting live, because I'm reporting to you live as I'm reading it, is that sounds like Bob Mueller going point-by-point, tracing the line of information."

Even on public radio, where commentary is often more carefully calibrated than on television news, reporters found themselves resorting to sentences like this one, from NPR's Mara Liasson: "I think this is the kind of thing that doesn't lend itself to a quick, hot take," she said, before attempting to distill one of the report's executive summaries.

On Twitter, her colleague Scott Detrow wrote, "Current status: reading a document on live national radio."

At least these admissions offered audiences transparency, a crucial element of reporting at such break-neck speed, wrote The Post's Margaret Sullivan in a Mueller Eve column about the perilous news day to come.

"That's why it will be important for journalists, in the initial reporting, to be open with their audiences or readers about what they don't know," Sullivan wrote. "To say, in essence, 'we just got this and we are reading it in real time and trying to figure it out.' "

And Jones, midday, said the media had done a relatively good job — especially with keeping opinionators side-lined.

"They let the reporters dictate their coverage which is the smart way to do it," he said. "It would've been nice if they had three or four hours to read it, but that's just not realistic in today's 24-hour cable news environment. ... I'm not sure most outlets have the luxury of saying, 'hey we'll get back to you in a couple hours.'"

But ideally, Jones said, all journalists could follow the lead of ProPublica's Eric Umansky, who pledged to read the report in full before offering up any conclusions.

"We're gonna sit in a room, *leave our phones outside*, and READ THE DAMN REPORT," he said on Twitter. "No takes till we're done reading the whole thing."

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