Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the launch of a formal impeachment proceeding Tuesday, on the revelation that President Trump tried to pressure the government of Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden, one of his 2020 rivals, most notably in a call with the nation’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky. The issue presented a fresh challenge for news organizations that are still not totally comfortable with covering political issues so partisan they border on the religious. Here’s how MSNBC, CNN, and the Washington Post managed the first days of the latest scandal.
Anchor Chris Hayes described Tuesday’s impeachment news as “a pivot in American history.” In general, the network has done an excellent job covering the burgeoning scandal, keeping pace and producing intelligent and dispassionate reporting, hour by hour.
Because the president and his loyalists continue to insist they’ve done nothing wrong, it’s imperative for journalists to draw a precise line between fact and opinion with every statement. MSNBC has generally done well there, too: Ari Melber told his audience on Wednesday, for example, “When I say certain things that sound like they are a criticism of the president, I will remind you, we are reporting the news of the facts that have emerged about the president … [which are] highly incriminating.” Nicolle Wallace cut away from the president’s press conference to deliver relevant facts regarding the Biden family’s connection to Ukraine. “We hate to do this, really. But the president isn’t telling the truth,” she said.
There have been a few missteps. Describing Wednesday’s press conference at the UN, White House correspondent Kristen Welker told Ali Velshi that “The president was defiant, and defended that phone call as totally appropriate.” It wasn’t, as published White House records amply demonstrate, and she should have said so.
Then Welker played some tape from the press conference, in which Hallie Jackson asked Trump:
“On Rudy Giuliani: Why do you think it’s appropriate for your personal attorney to get involved in government business?”
“Well, you’d have to ask Rudy,” Trump replied.
No, you would not. Why would anyone be remotely interested in why Rudy Giuliani thinks he should be involved in government business? Trump is president, not Giuliani. I had to rewind this to believe what I was hearing.
Instead of challenging Trump’s ridiculous evasion, Welker told Velshi, “So you heard at the top there, ‘You’d have to ask Rudy Giuliani.’ … We have reached out to Rudy Giuliani multiple times, to ask him that very question specifically—so far no reaction to that very specific question.” Why?
Welker went on to say that some of the president’s allies had told her that the impeachment inquiry might be good for him politically, an observation that will not age well.
No, Hayes’s approach is the correct one. “And then we saw the notes today,” he said on Wednesday, referring to the White House’s released records of the Zelensky call. “And my God! It is just flagrantly corrupt.”
The paper famous for bringing Nixon down seems to be seeking a major role in taking down another sitting president. The Post has been in the lead for breaking stories related to the president’s Ukrainian favor-trading, and I think they’ve been admirably restrained in doing embedded, passive-voice analysis of their own reporting. What’s more, they have been consistent in never—by my count—calling what the White House released an actual transcript. In most references, it’s a “rough transcript”; on the page where they embedded the document, it’s an “official readout” and a “summary.”
The careful reticence on the news side is especially notable given that the Post appears to have actually broken this story in its editorial pages. On September 5, the Post published an unsigned editorial (revealed to have been written by former national-security reporter Jackson Diehl) that criticized Trump for refusing to lend Ukraine symbolic support (in the form of a meeting) and suspending actual material support. In the third paragraph, the editorial went on to state:
We’re reliably told that the president has a second and more venal agenda: He is attempting to force Mr. Zelensky to intervene in the 2020 U.S. presidential election by launching an investigation of the leading Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Mr. Trump is not just soliciting Ukraine’s help with his presidential campaign; he is using U.S. military aid the country desperately needs in an attempt to extort it.
Opinion pages, obviously, tend to comment on the news, rather than make it, though the Post appears to be creating an excellent track record in this subgenre when it comes to the Trump administration in particular. It was Post columnist David Ignatius who first reported on the phone calls between Mike Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—the first small stone in an avalanche that became the Mueller report.
One may ask if the Post was almost too diligent in keeping the opinion and news sides of the paper separate. Surely the story would have moved more quickly if Diehl had cooperated with the news team. But buttoning up the story independently just makes the case made by the facts stronger, and—who knows—Diehl’s releasing the notion of Trump’s “venal agenda” into the DC atmosphere may have given some cover to the officials who eventually talked to beat reporters.
The Post’s only misstep so far could turn out to be the report that acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire “threatened to resign over concerns that the White House might attempt to force him to stonewall Congress.” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham pushed back against the allegation in blunt terms—“This is actually not true”—to which Post executive editor Martin Baron replied, “We stand by the story.” You can decide for yourself if Grisham’s statement undermines the reporting, or if the White House’s record of lying undermines her statement.
-Ana Marie Cox
I will start by saying that, to CNN’s credit, they have taken this very seriously. Coverage has not pretended that there is a both-sides scandal here, and, for the most part, the severity of the allegations has been prioritized over how this will play in the polls. (There have, naturally, been some exceptions). The network, so far, has recognized that this story is (at least!) as much about one branch of government’s constitutional obligation to check alleged abuse of power as it is about election numbers.
My main critique of CNN is that the average person in this country—and even, I would imagine, the average person watching CNN—is not sitting around refreshing Twitter all day trying to follow what’s happening. That means that a headline or a fragment might be their whole experience of the story.
So if the headline is PRESIDENT TO RELEASE TRANSCRIPT, as it was on Tuesday, the reader will come away with that, and not that the White House was still not releasing the whistle-blower complaint. Don’t publish HE’S RELEASING THE TRANSCRIPT when he’s still fighting the release of the whistle-blower complaint! And if your screen blares TRANSCRIPT SHOWS TRUMP PUSHED UKRAINE TO INVESTIGATE BIDEN, and if hosts refer to it as a transcript repeatedly on-air, then it seems that the White House released the transcript, and not a memo, which is, in fact, what happened. Don’t call it a transcript! It’s not! We now know that they were allegedly working to hide the real transcript!
I think that, in this instance, CNN is demonstrating a sense of clarity, at least when it comes to the stakes. I would just hope that the network learns to help those readers and viewers who aren’t as plugged in—there’s an audience out there that might not be nodding along to every beat of this scandal. That doesn’t mean they’re not listening.
Editors note: CJR has appointed its own outside public editors for four vital news outlets — The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC — that currently lack any public ombudsman. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Any messages will be treated as off-the-record unless otherwise agreed.)
TOP IMAGE: Photo by ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP/Getty Images.