ABC: The Network That Cried ‘Bombshell’

In its Oct. 28 broadcast ABC characterized FBI Director James Comey’s original letter to Congress as a game-changing stunner — a “bombshell” that could alter the course of the race with just 11 days to go.

Covering the Clinton campaign’s reaction, ABC’s Cecelia Vega said the news was “a total bombshell to this campaign at the highest level.” Pierre Thomas said it was a “political nightmare” that had “stunned” Clinton’s campaign.



In less than nine minutes, anchor David Muir and ABC reporters said the word “bombshell” six times and displayed on screen for nearly 2.5 minutes.

On Nov. 6 Comey sent another letter to Congress, this time informing them that the new emails would not change the FBI’s original position — that Clinton would not be charged.

ABC led with Comey’s new announcement that night. But its coverage was noticeably less dramatic than it was for Comey’s original letter —although both could impact the race.

Muir described the news as a “new” turn in the campaign. The word “bombshell” was not featured on screen as it was for Comey’s original letter. ABC featured instead a standard “breaking news” graphic, plus “FBI Clears Clinton” and “11th Hour Reprieve.”



Only once did ABC’s Nov. 6 coverage resemble what it did on Oct. 28. Late in the segment Tom Llamas referred to the news as “Director Comey’s latest bombshell.”

According to Norman Ornstein, contributing editor to The Atlantic, ABC’s coverage of Comey’s original letter points to a larger problem in journalism.

“The way ABC handled the original letter is a case study in what is wrong with contemporary journalism,” Ornstein said. “Hyping the original letter was an overstatement and had an impact on the campaign.”

For Ornstein, ABC made a mistake by overhyping the first letter. But he believes they should have given the same treatment to the second letter.

“It is true that the first letter was a break from previous FBI behavior and a breach in long-standing customs,” Ornstein said. “But the bland language in the letter left a lot of doubt, and logic suggested in fact that there was no reason to believe that this was in fact a bombshell. The editors and anchor decided to make such a big deal out of that first letter, they had a deep obligation to make an even bigger deal out of the second.”

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