ABC Shows Lengthy Press Room Exchange with Sean Spicer

Journalists try not to make themselves a part the news, limiting the amount of airtime a reporter is on screen during a story. That wasn’t the case when ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported on former national security adviser Michael Flynn on March 31.

“Flynn talked a lot about prosecution during the campaign,” Karl reported.

Then came a clip of Flynn chanting “lock her up” at the Republican National Convention last July, referring to Hillary Clinton.

Following that clip, ABC showed Flynn on NBC’s Meet the Press, when he spoke about a Clinton aide who was given immunity to speak about the email scandal.

“When you are given immunity that means you’ve probably committed a crime,” Flynn said.

ABC then showed lengthy back-and-forth between Jonathan Karl and White House spokesman Sean Spicer.

“So does the president think that Mike Flynn is guilty of a crime?” Karl asked.

“I think he believes that Mike Flynn should go testify,” Spicer said. “He thinks that he should go up there and do what he has to do to get the story out.”

“With or without immunity?” Karl said.

“That’s up to him and his lawyer to decide,” Spicer replied. “I’m not going to give Mike Flynn or anyone else legal advice from the podium, but I will tell you that the president’s view is he should go up there and he should testify.”

“But the president gave legal advice from his Twitter account,” Karl said. “He said–”

Spicer then attempted to interrupt, but Karl continued.

“He has said in the past that the only reason you ask for immunity is if you committed a crime,” Karl said.

“Right, but I think the underlying point that you’re missing, Jonathan, respectfully, is that what he’s asking is: go testify,” Spicer said. “Go get it out there.”

The exchange lasted more than 30 seconds, a long time for an evening news story.

Later, Karl returns to Spicer.

“Asked directly today if the White House is concerned about what Flynn might tell Congress, Press Secretary Sean Spicer had a simple one-word response,” reported Karl.

“Nope,” Spicer said.

Was Karl doing his job by challenging Spicer’s evasiveness, or was this simply creating a self-serving exchange? Was airing the entire exchange necessary?

Linda Winslow, former executive producer of PBS NewsHour, said the answer lies in the context before the exchange.

“That background made it possible for me to follow Karl’s line of questioning at the news briefing, and to understand the nuances being brought out by each successive question,” Winslow said. “I think the decision to include the whole exchange was a good one, because it allowed the viewer to decide for him or herself whether Karl was being overly aggressive and whether Spicer was dodging his questions or trying to answer them honestly.”

Winslow said she prefers to see the exchange herself than hear the reporter attempt to describe it.

“Words like ‘testy,’ ‘combative,’ ‘aggressive’ or ‘flailing’ are all supplied by the ear of the beholder,” she said. “When a reporter uses them, it sounds like we’re being told not just what happened, but how to interpret it. Personally, I prefer the Karl approach to hearing a reporter summarize remarks that can be interpreted differently from different perspectives.”

More from Linda Winslow:

  • “I can only speak from my experience as a producer of the PBS NewsHour for many years. We made it a point to use longer excerpts from news events, including speeches and briefings, whenever warranted, so that our audience could draw its own conclusions about what was said and how to characterize it. We were rewarded with a loyal audience that consistently lists ‘trust’ as its main reason for watching. Although smaller than that of the nightly commercial news programs, that audience has grown about 25 percent in the past year. While no one claims longer excerpts and fewer adjectives are responsible for that growth, they clearly didn’t hurt it.”

Maggie Gottlieb

Maggie Gottlieb is a senior broadcast journalism major and public policy minor from southern Maryland. Her interest in politics began when the 2016 campaign season did, holding internships with NBC’s “Meet the Press” and Cox Media Group’s Capitol Hill bureau, among others. She covered the Democratic National Convention and went to London for election week for overseas reaction. She plans to work in television news production when she graduates this coming May. In her free time, Maggie enjoys Twitter-stalking politicians and playing with her two dogs, Taz and Ringo. She can be reached at or via Twitter @gottmags.

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