Spicer’s ‘Hitler’ comments steal leads in all three newscasts
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made waves on April 11 when he claimed that Hitler never used poison gas during World War II. That left an implication that Hitler was less of a threat than Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who used them on his own citizens.
“You had someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” said Spicer.
ABC’s White House correspondent, Cecilia Vega, gave Spicer a chance to explain his comment. In his retraction, Spicer explained that Hitler’s use of the gas was different because he used it on victims in “Holocaust centers,” Spicer’s term for concentration camps. Many were outraged.
“For too long now, network news will lead with stories that aren’t necessarily the most important but are sure to attract the most eyeballs,” says Former Executive NPR and Senior ABC Producer, Richard Harris, “So in that new world order, a major gaffe by the presidential press secretary will rise to the lead.”
The story was a hot topic, but other important stories took a backseat to Spicer’s comments:
- the Pentagon’s conclusion that Syria was responsible for the chemical attacks on its people and Russia’s work to cover it up
- Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson’s visit to Russia
- investigations of the Russian cyber attack during the presidential campaign
- Trump’s tweet about North Korea “looking for trouble”
Harris argues Spicer’s gaffe was an important lede.
“It supports a narrative of this White House frequently “not ready for prime time.” Not only was this an egregious stumble, but it comes on the heels of the White House not mentioning Jews in its release on Holocaust Remembrance Day, something all three networks failed to mention in their lead stories,” says Harris.
Newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times didn’t dedicate the front page to this story, but all three nightly newscasts led with it.
“It is often the case that the lead story of the network news does not mirror the front page of the newspaper. It’s the difference between a “newspaper of record” having a different mission than the business imperative that infects network news or tabloid newspapers to attract eyeballs above all else,” says Harris.
So the story took the lead, but what was the best way to cover it?
“It’s tricky. Folding Pelosi’s call for Spicer’s resignation makes the network an accessory to the politicization of the story,” explains Harris, “Showing Spicer’s apology was important since White House apologies are a rare commodity and demonstrate that the White House realized how deeply it had stepped in it.”