The Media Today

Bill Taylor and George Kent give facts an airing

November 14, 2019

It’s not often, in 2019, that major networks all drop what they’re doing to air the lengthy, meticulous recounting of facts. But yesterday, that’s what we saw. (Well, to some extent.) Ahead of questioning in the first televised impeachment hearing of the Trump era, witnesses Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a State Department bureaucrat, explained their respective vantage points on the Trump–Ukraine scandal in testimony that was part tightly-structured narrative, part foreign policy seminar.

In general, things proceeded decorously from there. The hearing felt like a nostalgia trip, with Kent’s natty bowtie, and Taylor’s old-school glasses, bushy eyebrows, and sonorous, newscaster-ish voice as the finishing touches. As James Poniewozik, TV critic at the Times, wrote afterward, “Taylor’s gravelly composure was the voice, not so much of another person, but another time—a time of authoritative voices that a wide audience found credible.” If the networks had aired the hearing in black and white and added a Cold War crackle to the sound, it wouldn’t have felt incongruous.

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Outside, in the full glare of our present informational hellscape, things looked different. (It’s important to note that the hellscape did penetrate the room at times: through Republican Devin Nunes’s tortured opening remarks about the Democrats’ “Star Chamber auditions” for “the low-rent Ukrainian sequel” to the “Russia hoax,” and later through GOP questioning in which fact was too often secondary to conspiracism.) On Twitter, right-wingers spread lies about the hearing via the hashtag #ImpeachmentHoax.

On TV, Fox News was at something approaching its most partisan. Before the hearing even started, Fox & Friends was rolling the pitch: “If there’s no quid or pro you can’t keep saying ‘quid pro quo,’ even though I don’t even know what that means, really,” guest Charles Hurt, of the Washington Times, told host Steve Doocy. “I don’t know what language ‘quid pro quo’ is.” When Adam Schiff, the Democratic lawmaker chairing proceedings, started speaking, Fox flashed up a graphic that had the effect of questioning his credibility; it later did likewise for Taylor. Much later, the network’s primetime opinion hosts let rip. Tucker Carlson—who has been “loudly ignoring” the impeachment story—called the process “stupid.” Sean Hannity called it “THE WORST SHOW ON EARTH,” and demanded it be “shut down immediately.” Over on Fox Business, Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, Trump-allied lawyers, told Lou Dobbs that George Soros controls “a large part” of America’s foreign service.

Fox is widely watched, but not everyone gets their news there, of course. The big newspapers and networks—whose nightly newscasts out-rate cable, but tend to get less attention—played the hearing much straighter. The one new revelation of the day—Taylor’s claim that an aide overheard a call between Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, and Trump, then was told, by Sondland, that Trump cares more about “the investigations of Biden” than Ukraine—was front and center, passing the media’s “EXPLOSIVE” (or “startling,” or “huge”) test.

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Still, the facts were far from the only consideration: the optics of the hearing drove conversation, too. There was talk of “central casting”; several commentators called Taylor the witness the Democrats thought Robert Mueller would be, back in July. As I wrote yesterday, such chatter isn’t entirely inappropriate—televised impeachment hearings are inevitably, to some extent, a framing exercise. I also wrote, however, that news organizations shouldn’t second-guess what the public finds interesting by declaring the hearing a bust, and on that score, we did see some failures. NBC News said the hearing “lacked the pizazz necessary to capture public attention”; Reuters called it “consequential, but dull.” (On Twitter, both stories took some flak: David Roberts, of Vox, said the latter was “practically a guided tour through media dysfunctions.”)

As with any big national story, meanwhile, it’s easy to forget the Americans following things through the prism of local news. Yesterday, CJR’s Lauren Harris kept an eye on that. These days, cash-strapped local outlets commonly lean on wire stories for national coverage, but some did invest in their own explainers and coverage of how local people see impeachment. Many listeners and viewers found their local airwaves taken over by the hearing, but that wasn’t uniform—if you were watching the Fox station in Washington, DC, for instance, you’d have seen The Wendy Williams Show, not Taylor’s opening statement. In Linton, North Dakota, restaurant-goers were glued to a hearingabout the Dakota Access Pipeline, not impeachment.

Many of those who were watching Kent and Taylor will already have made up their minds about impeachment, of course—the partisan framing in parts of the news media will only have reinforced their views. Across America, however, some viewers—however thin their ranks—will have watched yesterday’s hearing with something approaching an open mind. They will have heard facts. Misleading graphics notwithstanding, of course.

Below, more on yesterday:

  • TV lawyers: Trump said he wasn’t watching yesterday, though he did reference the hearing repeatedly, including a criticism of Democrats for using “television lawyers.” He wasn’t entirely wrong: Andrew Goldman, the staff lawyer who questioned Kent and Taylor on Schiff’s behalf, used to be a legal analyst for NBC and MSNBC. Andrew Weissmann, who worked as an attorney on the Mueller probe, meanwhile, has gone in the opposite direction: he made his debut as a commentator on NBC yesterday.
  • Friendly people and journalists: Trump welcomed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the controversial president of Turkey, to the White House yesterday for a visit that would have been newsier if the hearing hadn’t been on. At a joint presser, Trump called on only two US news outlets—Fox and the even more boosterish One America News Network—as well as “a friendly person from Turkey… Only friendly reporters.” At that point, Senator Lindsey Graham turned to Jonathan Karl, of ABC News, and said “there aren’t any others left.” Turkey is the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists.
  • Christmas bonus: Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, a consulting firm, reckons the televised impeachment hearings “could cost employers $2.1 billion each hour their employees spend when they would otherwise be working.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Paul Gores has more.
  • The Latest: Last night, the Times debuted a new evening podcast, The Latest, focused on the impeachment process. Episodes last five to 10 minutes and are produced by the same team that works on The Daily. The Hollywood Reporter’s Natalie Jarvey has more.
  • Say what now?: Paul Gosar, a Republican Congressman from Arizona, livetweeted the hearing yesterday. His missives looked like standard GOP talking points, until someone noticed that taking the first letter of each (in reverse-chronological order) gives you “EPSTEIN DIDNT KILL HIMSELF.” Gosar later doubled down.

Other notable stories:

  • McClatchy could be in trouble: yesterday, the publisher reported heavy losses that may compromise its ability to make pension funding payments in the spring. Per Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, if federal authorities won’t help, McClatchy could look to sell; if it does, Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund that is currently McClatchy’s biggest stockholder, would be well-placed to buy it. In other local-news news, shareholders will vote today on GateHouse’s proposed acquisition of Gannett; they’re expected to approve it, despite plummeting GateHouse stock. And Tribune is shuttering Hoy, a Spanish-language weekly in Chicago. The paper will disappear on December 13.
  • This week, media Twitter erupted after editors at the Daily Northwestern, Northwestern University’s student paper, apologized for publishing photos of campus protesters and using the school’s directory to contact students. Prominent journalists accused the paper’s staff of injuring the core tenets of reporting, but a more nuanced debate has emerged from the wreckage of the rush to judge. For the Times, Julie Bosman, Mitch Smith, and Kate Taylor have a thoughtful write-up: student journalists “found themselves struggling to meet two dueling goals: responding to the changing expectations of the students they cover… while upholding widely accepted standards of journalism.”
  • Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, just jumped into the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. He’s on CBS This Morning today; CBS News signed Patrick as a contributor in September, but that arrangement is now off. Elsewhere, Cenk Uygur, founder of progressive news outlet the Young Turks, filed to run for Congress in California, where a US House seat is vacant following the resignation of Rep. Katie Hill.
  • For CJR, Andy Mannix, a reporter with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, writes that a video he shot outside of a Trump rally was spun into a right-wing disinformation campaign. Trolls said the video proved Rep. Ilhan Omar’s presence at an “Antifa riot”; there was no riot, and Omar was in Morocco at the time. Mannix painstakingly debunked the lie, but his fact-check “only strengthened the resolve of some of Omar’s biggest critics,” he says.
  • For In These Times, Branko Marcetic analyzed MSNBC’s primetime political coverage in August and September; he found that Joe Biden was mentioned twice as often as Elizabeth Warren and three times as often as Bernie Sanders, and that Sanders received the harshest treatment of the trio. Discussions often revolved around polling.
  • WBUR’s Adrian Ma profiles DigBoston, an alt-weekly that—unlike many of its peers nationally—has survived despite wavering finances. DigBoston is partly funded by donations to a nonprofit institute that the paper’s leaders founded in 2015; it also takes advertising, including from Massachusetts’s burgeoning legal cannabis industry.
  • The BBC’s sponsored-content team produced a PR campaign for Huawei, the controversial Chinese telecoms behemoth. BBC journalists told BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano that the Huawei partnership is “embarrassing,” and could undermine reporting.
  • And earlier today, Australia freed Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and Kurdish-Iranian refugee, from its immigration regime after six years of detention. Boochani won numerous awards for chronicling the system that held him. The Guardian has more.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.