On cable news at the Kavanaugh hearing, everyone stays in character

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday, September 27, 2018. (Photo by Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images)

Should Thursday’s hearing be viewed as a trial for Brett Kavanaugh, nominee to the Supreme Court, or an extremely public job interview, as Republican and Democratic talking points laid out, respectively, according to a report by The New York Times? Does it reveal the corruption of Democrats, seeking by any means possible to disparage President Trump’s pick? Is Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault, a pawn? The pundits on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC staked out their expected positions, as the day became a distillation of how deeply entangled their interests are with the politics they cover. It was a good show—a few, actually. Cable viewers—many of whom have likely made up their minds on Kavanaugh during the past two weeks of saturation coverage—were able to choose their own adventure.

By the estimation of MSNBC, whose hosts and analysts hew closely to the Democratic line, the day’s events were just the latest example of the moral bankruptcy of the Republican Party. And the GOP attempts to rush a vote on Kavanaugh last Friday, before even hearing Ford’s testimony, was a craven attempt to pack the nation’s highest court with far-right judges—a move that fit squarely in with their overall corruption of justice. Anything short of Kavanaugh’s withdrawal and Trump’s defeat in a televised address would be a disappointment. “Time may not be on their side, but is the truth on their side?” Stephanie Ruhle, anchor of MSNBC Live, asked in the hour before Ford’s remarks. “And if the truth is on their side, should time matter?”

RELATED: In Christine Blasey Ford’s opening statement this morning, she had an important message for reporters

It’s hard to imagine what in Ford’s testimony could have satisfied the standard set at the opposite end of the cable news spectrum, Fox News. The Trump favorite, Fox & Friends, dismissed her accusation as a case of mistaken identity. A preview panel discussion, featuring Brit Hume, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace, among others, not only argued—wrongly—that Ford’s allegations would have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt but also implied that her story was part of a witch-hunting alliance between Democrats and the media. “Nobody gets out of this in good shape,” Hume huffed.

After Ford gave her opening remarks and began answering questions from the committee, the talking heads on Fox News questioned the severity of her cross-examination. “The main topic here is the effectiveness of this questioning,” host Martha MacCallum said. “It’s really hard to say whether any of this has landed any dent at all in her credibility.”

These opposing viewpoints—MSNBC and Fox—are not equidistant from the mythical center of political media. But CNN, the middle child of cable news, attempted to claim that ground by focusing on the Republican whip count. “The truth of the matter is that there’s a lot in Washington that happens where the cake is already baked and it’s just Kabuki theater,” host Jake Tapper said. “We’re all just pretending that we don’t know the outcome.” But this time was different. “We really don’t know the outcome here.” In other words: break out the popcorn and keep watching!

Sign up for CJR's daily email

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how any of these philosophies helped viewers understand anything. As Kavanaugh made his own remarks on Thursday afternoon, at times shouting into the microphone of the Senate chambers, reports began trickling in that President Trump was pleased with his nominee’s hard-edged testimony. Republicans on the Judiciary Committee closed ranks around the Kavanaugh—Senator Lindsey Graham, commiserating, said, “This is hell.” On that, he might be right. But to find out what happens next, you’ll have to tune in tomorrow.

RELATED: NYT and The New Yorker were attacked for recent scoops 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.