As a demonstration of everything TV news does right and does wrong, it’s hard to beat the media-storm created by Sam Nunberg on Monday. Nunberg is a former Trump campaign adviser and close ally of the amoral political trickster Roger Stone; in other words, Nunberg knows where a few bodies are buried when it comes to political scandal. Nunberg got a subpoena from Robert Mueller’s team investigating interactions between Trump and Russia. It asks him to turn over to Mueller all the emails and texts he sent to at least 10 Trump confidantes, and this request, apparently, blew his mind.
Nunberg scurried off to phone MSNBC in the afternoon, where he started squawking to host Katy Tur in a completely addled manner. He said he wasn’t going to obey Mueller’s order and, giggling nervously, dared Mueller to throw him in jail. (Which Mueller has the legal right to do.) Nunberg babbled on and on about how Trump was an “idiot” for leaving himself open to accusations of colluding with Russian contacts, but Nunberg also said how glad he is Trump is president, mostly because he and Roger Stone helped to accomplish this feat.
As the afternoon shadows stretched out, Nunberg went to CNN, where he appeared first on Jake Tapper’s show The Lead and then on Erin Burnett’s OutFront. He acted, if possible, even more indignant about the subpoena on CNN than he did on MSNBC. Nunberg pulled out the usual, right-wing, why-isn’t-Hillary-being-investigated speech, but he also began yammering so aimlessly that Burnett felt it appropriate to tell Nunberg that “I smell alcohol on your breath,” to which Nunberg replied he was not drunk, as much as this might have made for a merciful excuse for his behavior. Later in the evening, Stephen Colbert had a nice summary of the day’s events.
CNN and MSNBC stayed on this story for hours and hours — far beyond its newsworthiness, and mostly because they had footage of a crazy man talking. Of the interviews, Tapper’s was the best, most incisive — it walked the line between close questioning and polite skepticism. This was, to be sure, a form of breaking news, and any time someone this close to the president has a public meltdown (a condition Nunberg denied to Yahoo News), it’s worthy of comment. But the hours of coverage devoted to Nunberg throughout the afternoon and evening was a flagrant example of beating a dead horse, or, at least, of inviting the dead horse to make a fool of himself.
You’d think Fox would have plastered Nunberg all over every one of its shows, since he was doing what they do 24/7 there — dumping on Mueller and Hillary Clinton. But Fox News gave Nunberg short shrift, primarily because (a) Nunberg didn’t ask to go on its air, and (b) Nunberg was saying that he thinks Trump has “probably done something” to merit the Mueller investigation. For that, he was automatically shunned, reduced to a mere mention, by Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Monday’s substitute-for-Tucker-Carlson Mark Steyn (don’t know him? he’s the one that yells in a Canadian growl and looks like a grizzly bear who’s learned to shave).
As usual, TV news spent too much time on a story that had a little sizzle, while failing to give much coverage to things that warrant wider dissemination, such as calling viewers’ attention to Jane Mayer’s excellent new New Yorker profile of Christopher Steele.
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