Impeachment, Brexit, and the spectacle trap

This evening, two news stories could come to a climax. Or should that be anticlimax? Senate Democrats’ efforts to prolong Donald Trump’s impeachment trial look likely to fail; if they do, a vote will be called and the president will be acquitted. On the other side of the Atlantic—after three and a half years, several false starts, and innumerable manic news cycles—Britain will finally leave the European Union.

Britain’s newspapers, which aren’t known for their restraint, have heralded Brexit day with varying degrees of bombast. More than one front page featured images of the White Cliffs of Dover—a symbol of British greatness or insularity, depending on your view. But Brexit was not the only story of the day. The Daily Mirror, a left-wing tabloid, led with the coronavirus. As the day wore on, two cases were confirmed in Britain, and several outlets, including the BBC, put the story atop their sites. The sense seemed to be that, at this point, with the political suspense behind us, Brexit was less newsworthy than the arrival of a “KILLER VIRUS.” As the Associated Press described Brexit this morning, “Friday will mark a truly historic moment, but almost nothing will happen.”

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

Brexit coverage, once breathless, has become increasingly subdued as the date has inched closer, and other stories have overshadowed it. Many of them—Megxit, the controversy around Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein—have been about the royal family. Johnson’s crushing election victory, in mid-December, ended the Brexit gridlock in Parliament and removed any lingering doubts as to whether Britain would, in fact, leave the EU. Triviality—joyous flag-waving on the one side; the mournful singing of “Auld Lang Syne” on the other; commemorative coins and their contentious non-use of serial commas—has dominated Brexit coverage. “Things are kind of quiet,” Yasmeen Serhan, a London-based writer for The Atlantic, told The Takeaway yesterday. “I don’t think there’s as much anticipation now. I think people have sort of just resigned themselves.”

Impeachment, by contrast, has continued to sustain wall-to-wall coverage as it reaches its end. In theory, today could bring a dramatic twist, if Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, joins her colleagues Susan Collins and Mitt Romney in calling for witnesses. Then Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial, would get a deciding vote on the matter. But it’s still no Super Bowl. Even if that improbable event occurs, Roberts is expected to abstain, meaning the motion would fail. And more broadly, as was the case with Johnson’s election win, the certainty of Trump’s acquittal has taken the wind out of coverage. Procedural questions are important, of course, but more so in a trial that’s not in the grip of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They won’t change the outcome, nor the basic facts of Trump’s conduct, most of which we already know. By obsessing over Senate process, the press is merely reflecting its thirst for tension.

Journalism, as usual, is being held captive by spectacle, rather than substance. In October, Joe Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, summed up the problem in an interview with Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher: “People have asked me a lot about the liberal bias in the press, and I say I don’t think there is a liberal bias,” Lockhart said. Instead, “I think there’s a bias towards action, versus inaction.” By that metric, Trump’s trial falls short. So does Brexit. The absence of touch-and-go plays, political hijinks, and knife-edge votes leaves coverage with a sense of grinding inevitability.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

But the consequences—of both impeachment and Brexit—remain urgent. Trump has committed the offenses of which he’s been accused, and there’s a real danger that he’ll take his acquittal as license to do them again. Future presidents—and senators, and grade school bullies—could follow. Britain is now entering a critical period of transition, and will have to figure out not just its place in the world, but also the direction it wants to take domestically, too. In recent weeks, such high—yet relatively dry—stakes have been given only secondary consideration in the press.

The big stories of the moment are not just those that come in the form of political circus, however. Same as always, they’re those that have meaningful impact on the lives of millions, who may lack interest in the dull procedural goings-on inside halls of power. It would be wise to remember that the task of the press is to help everyone understand why the news, not just the show, is worth caring about.

Below, more on impeachment and Britain:

Other notable stories:

  • On Sunday, the Washington Post suspended Felicia Sonmez, a political reporter, for tweeting about a past rape case involving Kobe Bryant. The decision was widely criticized. On Tuesday, Sonmez was reinstated; afterward, she demanded that Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, fully explain his handling of the incident. Yesterday, Baron broke his silence in a memo to staff. He did not apologize to Sonmez, but did state that rules governing staffers’ online conduct will change, “in recognition of how social media has changed since our policy was written in 2011.” And he conceded that with reporters’ tweets, “it is not always easy to know where to draw the line.”
  • The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong built a database of all the ads the Trump campaign ran on Facebook last year. (Trump is now blitzing his Democratic rivals on the platform, in terms of both volume and dollars spent.) Some of the ads were xenophobic or misleading, but many of them were “mundane… featuring classic marketing ploys designed to harvest user data,” Wong writes. On such terms, they were likely effective.
  • Last summer, in a New York magazine cover story, E. Jean Carroll, an advice columnist, accused Trump of raping her. After Trump denied the claim and said (falsely) that he’d never met Carroll, she sued him for defamation. Her lawyers are now demanding that he hand over a DNA sample, so they can match it against the dress Carroll was wearing on the day of the alleged rape. Trump has until March 2 to comply. Don’t count on it.
  • For CJR, Jessica Meiselman writes that Trump’s presidency has emboldened news organizations to take an aggressive stance against unionization efforts. One such outlet is Barstool Sports, whose founder, Dave Portnoy, threatened to fire staffers who contacted a union organizer. This week, Penn National Gaming, a sports-gambling company, finalized a deal to buy Barstool. Portnoy is staying on under the new owners.
  • In May, The Atlantic named Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, as a contributing editor—but he hasn’t contributed anything since then. According to the Post’s Erik Wemple, Black staffers asked Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief, to reverse the hiring decision; they argued that Emanuel’s dishonest handling of the murder of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, by a white Chicago police officer, should disqualify him for the masthead. Goldberg not only removed Emanuel as a contributing editor, but abolished the title altogether, Wemple reports.
  • Earlier this month, Morris Berger, a football coach at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan, told The Lanthorn, the school’s newspaper, that “you can’t deny” that Adolf Hitler was “a great leader.” Nick Moran, the paper’s editor, says a school athletics official subsequently tried to censor the remark; Moran initially complied, then changed his mind last week and published a full transcript. MLive’s Michael Kransz has more.
  • Yesterday, the World Health Organization classified the coronavirus as a global health emergency. NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny, Kalhan Rosenblatt, and Ben Collins report that the spread of the disease has unleashed a torrent of misinformation on social media; many accounts have weaponized it to accumulate new followers. Much of the misinformation has trafficked in anti-Chinese sentiment. Motoko Rich, of the Times, has more on that.
  • Also yesterday, a tribunal in Martinique, an overseas French territory in the Caribbean Sea, liquidated France-Antilles, a newspaper group serving Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana. As a result, the three territories will become the first regions of France not to have a daily newspaper. For CJR, I charted the paper’s recent decline.
  • And some of the writers who quit Deadspin in protest of management are launching Unnamed Temporary Sports Blog Dot Com, an… unnamed temporary sports blog that will cover the Super Bowl. The Kansas City Chiefs will face the San Francisco 49ers at 6:30pm EST on Sunday.

ICYMI: Felicia Sonmez and the tyranny of the social-media policy

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

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.