Did Jeff Sessions quit or get fired? Depends on what — and when — you’re watching

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After the ouster of Attorney General Jeff Sessions Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2018, the cable networks covered the story extensively throughout the afternoon and into the evening — but it’s interesting to see how the departure was labeled.

  • Although officially labeled as a resignation, the White House released a letter from Sessions to Donald Trump that began “At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” which suggests that Sessions’ resignation was not initiated by him.
  • Reports later emerged that Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, called Sessions to request his resignation on behalf of Trump.
  • The labeling of Sessions’ exit varied from cable network to cable network — but also show to show.
  • The broadcast networks also varied in how they labeled Sessions departure.

Here’s how MSNBC’s label of the new changed:

  • About 46 minutes into “MSNBC Live with Katy Tur,” the network returned to a break with a banner reading: “Trump tweets Sessions out as attorney general.”
  • About two minutes later, the banner was changed to read “Attorney General Sessions resigns.”
  • While transitioning to Ali Velshi’s hour, the banner changed to read “Attorney General Sessions resigns at Trump’s request.”
  • About 24 minutes later, in the middle of a phone interview, which caused the banner to be taken down temporarily, the network switched to one reading “Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired.”
  • As the network continued coverage into the evening, the word “fired” was favored.

Here’s how CNN reported the news:

  • During “CNN Newsroom,” the network cut into a commercial in progress before its breaking news stinger played and the network’s banner read “Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigns.” Jake Tapper, who were anchoring rolling coverage of the midterm elections along with Wolf Blitzer, labeled the move “effectively a firing.”
  • About three minutes later, the banner changed to read “Jeff Sessions out as attorney general.”
  • Just minutes later, the banner was changed to read “Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired.”
  • CNN also favored the word “fired” during its continuing coverage.

Fox News broke the story ahead of both MSNBC and CNN:

  • During “The Daily Briefing,” the network was about to go to a commercial break but instead the “Fox News Alert” stinger appeared on screen and Dana Perino tossed to John Roberts, who verbally reported the news.
  • For a few minutes, the network only displayed the “Fox News Alert” “sliver” — but then added a banner reading “Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigns.”
  • As coverage continued with “Shepard Smith Reporting” and Neil Cavuto’s “Your World,” the text was updated to contain variations that Sessions “resigned at Trump’s request” or “after Trump’s request.”
  • Fox commentators and hosts did, however, use the word “fired” multiple times on air.
  • “Tucker Carlson Tonight” did use the word “fired” in one of its lower thirds, but programming after that mainly used the “resigned at Trump’s request” wording.
  • Ongoing covered tended to favor the “at Trump’s request” label — though on air hosts did refer to the ouster as a “firing” multiple times.

From a symantic standpoint, Fox’s use of the phrase “resigned at Trump’s request” is more accurate than saying Sessions was “fired.”

  • Not only does the definition of the word “fired” suggest that the employer (in this case, Trump) took direct action to terminate an employee, but the connotation and tone of the word is stronger and more combative.
  • A resignation, when referred to alone, can be indicative of a wide reasons for departure — including a voluntary decision to leave to being asked to resign.
  • “Resigned at Trump’s request,” meanwhile, is wordier — but also more accurate and also does manage to convey that the decision was not Sessions’.