There’s probably no journalist in the country looking at as many criminal court filings these days than Scott MacFarlane.
An investigative reporter for the NBC-owned Washington, DC TV station, MacFarlane’s has become the go-to follow on Twitter, as he carefully examines the cases against hundreds of participants in the Capitol riot that led to insurrection on January 6th. That work places him in the national broadcast spotlight nearly every weekday, between appearances on MSNBC, Sirius-XM Radio, a flurry of national podcasts and other NBC platforms.
He took some time this past week to answer some of my questions, as his work now lives at the confluence of public interest, the new speed of media and the realities of government PR:
FRIEDMAN: Your Twitter following has exploded since January. Where do you think Twitter stands, now, as a news and information source?
MACFARLANE: As an information source, these social media platforms are remarkably efficient. Almost dangerously so. People can consume information at breathtaking speed. But people can also disseminate information at breathtaking speed, which is dangerous. Haste is seemingly always dangerous in journalism.
As a consumer of news, I’ll devour information on Twitter, but only from name brand news organizations or verified reporters, who work for news organizations with editorial standards. Sure, I’m concerned about reading inaccurate information. But I’m actually equally worried about information that’s posted without context, background or full understanding.Twitter can be a dangerous source of “accurate” information that’s wholly out of context.
That said, I’ve found the Twitter platform to be a uniquely and distinctively useful tool for reporting on the January 6 insurrection. The Capitol riot investigation has become the largest criminal investigation in American history! And…. It was a national horror. It’s a story that will persist for years. It’s also a story that will advance in small increments on an hourly basis. Every court appearance and every new court filing seem to yield news. That’s a news cycle built for Twitter and social. But each posting needs to have an editorial process. Is proper attribution included? Are we specifying every time that each allegation is just that… an allegation? Do we mention if a not guilty plea has been entered? Also, are we putting each news in context?
Why is this important? On Thursday, federal prosecutors revealed they had sent a plea agreement offer to defendant Federico Klein. I could simply post that nugget of news, but I’d be doing my followers a disservice if I didn’t also specify that Klein was a Trump Administration appointee, was free from jail until trial and perhaps facing less leverage than defendants in pre-trial detention. It’s also important to note if he is accused of violence against police that day, if he has pleaded not guilty, that he would be one of the first to sign a plea deal and that his lawyer said he wasn’t happy with the offer. That’s a lot to jam into an update or thread. But reporters who efficiently blend that information into their postings are rewarded with engagement and traction, because it has context that Twitter often lacks.
If I’ve been effective at anything, it’s in providing context, hopefully, each time. I’m tracking all 500 cases and I’ve read every one of the thousands of court filings. And I’m talking to people involved every day. I’m able to provide unique context on this story. Twitter users notice that. So do other journalists. Twitter has yielded countless bookings on radio, cable and podcasts, because the bookers want someone who can explain what this means in the bigger picture.
Twitter is Darwinian. People who have unique knowledge, credibility, voices or expertise soak up followers. I found an important topic on which I have expertise. As other reporters fall off the January 6th story (which is a natural tendency), I will continue to grow our audience on January 6th matters. There’ll be fewer and fewer experts.
FRIEDMAN: Why do you think politicians who want Americans to forget about the insurrection, or try to misrepresent it, will have a tough time sustaining that as the legal system begins to work in these cases?
MACFARLANE: Several reasons. First of all, defendants are saying inconvenient things for the insurrection deniers. Defendants – in some cases their attorneys – are specifying that it was Trump supporters, not Antifa or anarchists, who stormed the Capitol. Secondly, defense lawyers and defendants are beginning to blame Trump for motivating the actions of the mob.
Politically, the timing is interesting and important here. The first trial date is set for February 2022. If there are other trials, they could drag into the heart of the midterm elections, which the prospect of damning or inconvenient revelations. That’ll make it harder for candidates to get on the stump and deny the Insurrection.
For what it’s worth, this the only story I’ve covered in 25 years of journalism in which interests and engagement have increased as time goes by. I get more reaction, engagement and interest from viewers and followers now, than I did in February. What does that tell you about the impact of insurrection denialism or revisionist history that’s being attempted?
That said, I don’t get social media engagement or viewer e-mail from insurrection deniers. I think they’ve tuned me out. Or they’ve changed platforms. Or they don’t know what to say anymore.
FRIEDMAN: The Department of Justice and Capitol Police haven’t done any press conferences since January 6thabout these cases. Why do you think that is and what impact is it having on the flow of information?
MACFARLANE: As for Capitol Police, they don’t do them, because they don’t have to. Unlike your local police department, Capitol Police are not subject to any requirements for transparency. The Freedom of Information Act does not apply to them. Public records requests need not be filled. No body worn cameras. No public meetings. No review board. Yet, they have a half-billion dollar a year budget, 2,000 officers, arrest powers and guns. Congress exempted itself from transparency requirements and they did the same for their police department. I’m not knowledgeable enough on the best practices of legislative body police departments to tell you if that’s a “good” or “bad” thing, but it certainly has impacted me.
My reporting is wildly more valuable in a world in which Capitol Police don’t talk, don’t explain, don’t provide a blow-by-blow narrative of what happened on January 6th and what’s happening after. America suffered a trauma and is now relying on a handful of reporters who are trying to piece together a puzzle, to explain what the heck happened. I’m an investigative reporter who happens to have two particular areas of expertise: Congress and the federal courts. This is my kind of puzzle. I have an advantage.
As for the Justice Department: They have an long-standing practice not to talk about open and pending cases. Only two of these cases have reached plea agreements. There are 500+ more cases to go.There’s little to be gained and a lot to be risked, if they have a press conference, from their perspective. I’ve found them to be helpful in responding to requests.
I keep telling people, especially my editors, you have to manage expectations. Some of these cases will take years to conclude. That means, some of the most important answers could be years away.
FRIEDMAN:You have made a career out of finding gold in public documents and making them meaningful on TV. What lesson do you have for communicators about what you’re able to find and make into news?
MACFARLANE: Paper is bad TV. Black and white legal documents are especially bad TV. Until you use process language to engage the audience about them. I try to avoid the cliché of “we obtained these documents, blah, blah, blah” which seem to emanate from some bygone era. Use context instead…. “We were looking for an answer for you…. And then we spotted what was on page 10 of this report.” “Some of this didn’t make sense… until we found the footnote on page 2 of these emails we got a hold of.”
Process language. Tell the viewer what you were trying find for him or her, tell them how you got the document.. and what part of is it relevant to them. Viewers don’t want to see paper… unless you tell them why that piece of paper means something to them – the viewer benefit and the process you went through to get it.
Here’s an example that worked on social media… and I used it on Nicolle Wallace’s show earlier this week. It was context, it utilized the unique credibility I’ve developed on this story… and it used process: https://twitter.com/MacFarlaneNews/status/1400121153394515970?s=20