One lesson the Washington reporter learns very quickly is that he or she should never EVER have unbreakable plans for the weekend. It’s a major strain on the relationships that newspersons have with significant others who can accept only so many disappointments resulting from the Friday night news dump. The unpredictable dump has become sadly predictable.
For good reasons and bad, officials wait until most people have stopped paying attention because they’re focusing on their Saturday and Sunday activities, errands and fun stuff, and not on the incessant scandals that define politics. That’s why Friday evening becomes the preferred time to release the definitive reports, to minimize embarrassment when sane people aren’t watching.
But we are, and must scramble to cover the new developments. To be fair, there are honorable reasons to delay the blockbusters; for instance, to reduce the jolt to the financial markets, which are always looking for some reason to crater but are closed until Monday, when the impact of overcoverage might have dulled.
So it was with news that the final report from special counsel Robert Mueller had been delivered to Attorney General William Barr at about 5 p.m. Friday. When that happens, the nightly newscasts and cable news channels go bonkers. They go into panic mode, scrambling to report everything they know, and bringing in every pundit and “expert” to tell the world what they know.
This time, in both cases, they didn’t know much. That’s because all we really got was an announcement that Barr had received Mueller’s report and that he would decide how much he’d publicly release of it once he’d read it. That’s the legally required choreography. It didn’t stop the endless parade of pontificating panelists and members of Congress from breathlessly expressing their uninformed opinions about what they didn’t know.
The only indication we got from the attorney general was that he was reading the report and he’d get back to us. All that does is goad us into more of a frenzy of reporting where there was little to report, in a tizzy about the possibility that the competition will have more information than we have. There is little more that is demeaning to a journalist than a call from the boss asking, “How come we didn’t have that?” in reference to some scoop the other guys had.
The way it usually plays out is that the story will have worked its way out by the Sunday talk shows — “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation,” “This Week,” “Fox News Sunday.” Many of us call them “The Game Shows.” They are supposed to put an exclamation point on the big story during the weekend, before we stop paying attention.
That was not the case this time around. William Barr hadn’t gotten the memo about deadlines and announced he’d have no announcement in time for The Game Shows. He waited till Sunday afternoon to make his sensational written declaration: President Donald Trump, the man who put him in office, had been effectively let off the hook by Mueller.
Most Donald Trump stories evaporate, but this one will not. Trump will be taking a victory lap that will last until Election Day. Democrats will continue trying to trip him up with their investigations. And reporters will work many more weekends.
Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN. (c) 2019 Bob Franken Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.