The Media Today

When impeachment and the campaign collide

November 21, 2019

Yesterday morning, Gordon Sondland, the Trump donor turned US ambassador to the European Union, gave explosive testimony in the impeachment inquiry—directly tying the president and his top allies, including Mikes Pence and Pompeo, to the Ukraine scandal. Comparisons to John Dean’s testimony that implicated Richard Nixon in Watergate were pretty much everywhere, uniting Fox and The Nation; as with prior Trump-era John Dean parallels, CNN invited actual John Dean to discuss it. But the Dean–Sondland comparison (as Dean himself noted) is flawed. Jill Wine-Banks, a Watergate prosecutor, told the Times that Sondland reminded her less of Dean than of another Nixon official, Jeb Magruder. (“Jeb was always sort of weaseling out of full admissions. John, when he came clean, he really came clean.”) BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick offered a more pertinent reality check. “I know everyone wants their John Dean moment today, but it’s 2019,” he tweeted. “The majority of the country gets their news piecemeal via algorithmically sorted newsfeeds on their phones from platforms that Trump and his followers have spent the last three years completely dominating.”

Another key difference between Watergate and now is that the former crescendoed in 1973 and 1974, at the beginning of Nixon’s second term; by contrast, the Trump impeachment is unfolding at the same time as a presidential campaign season. Yesterday, the two huge stories collided with their heaviest thud to date: following Sondland’s testimony (and that of Laura Cooper and David Hale) the nation’s attention turned to Atlanta for the latest Democratic primary debate. Well, a portion of it did. Many outlets agreed that Sondland “overshadowed” the debate. That’s literally the case on today’s front pages of the Times and the Post, both of which have six-column headlines about the testimony, with the debate pushed below the fold. Online, the Post, which co-hosted the debate with MSNBC, went for a split-screen effect; still, Sondland spanned two-thirds of the top of the page.

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Admittedly, yesterday’s schedule clash was not really a fair fight. Even by recent dramatic standards, Sondland’s testimony was an exceptional, bombshell moment. The debate was not—it wasn’t the first (nor the second, third, or fourth) that we’ve seen this cycle; nor was it the last chance for candidates to get points across before the early states vote. (Some post-debate headlines—for example, “At critical moment, Democrats tackle range of issues,” in the Post—betray that this was not exactly a thrill ride.)

Still, adequately covering both impeachment and the campaign will be an increasingly tricky balancing act for news outlets. We don’t yet know the exact impeachment timetable, but as things stand, it looks likely that the Senate will take up proceedings in January. The schedule there is controlled by Republicans. In recent days, GOP senators have mused, privately and in public, about dragging out Trump’s trial to disrupt the Democrats’ focus on Iowa and New Hampshire. (Six Democratic senators are candidates, including current frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.)

Clearly, it’s not journalists’ job to apportion attention in ways that benefit candidates for office. Nonetheless, the issues being raised on the campaign trail—healthcare, taxes, systemic racism, and so on—are extremely important, and will remain so whatever the outcome of these impeachment proceedings. The challenge, for the press, is to ensure that DC drama doesn’t totally submerge discussion of enduring policy problems, and ideas for addressing them.

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In some ways, the debate last night was a case in point. The moderators plowed right into questions about impeachment (no time here for opening statements), directing them first at the senators (and future Trump jurors) on stage. The format, from there on, was reasonably fluid; nonetheless, many weighty matters got buried under questions about the president’s behavior. Cory Booker was asked if he would carry on tweeting as president and Joe Biden was asked if he’d support a hypothetical criminal investigation of Trump before we arrived at a question about climate change. By that point, the debate had been going on for an hour.

Still, the debate also offered pointers as to how we might strike a better balance. Warren used Sondland to condemn the practice of giving top donors plum ambassador jobs; in doing so, she expanded a narrow impeachment question into a broader conversation about wealth and cronyism at the heart of government. Soon afterward, Rachel Maddow, one of the moderators, made the balance question explicit by putting it to Sanders. “Americans are watching these impeachment hearings,” she said. “At the same time, they’re also focused on their more immediate, daily economic and family concerns. How central should the president’s conduct uncovered by this impeachment inquiry be to any Democratic nominee’s campaign for president?” Sanders replied that we can’t just be obsessed with Trump.

Whenever Trump leaves office—be it prematurely; as a result of the next election; or as late as January 2025—problems like the climate crisis will still be central. We need to keep our focus on them, too, no matter how compelling the John Dean metaphors coming out of Washington. Impeachment is clearly very important. But there’s room for more than one facet of democracy at a time in our coverage.

Below, more on impeachment and the campaign:

  • Up next: The next Democratic debate will be on December 19, in LA. PBS NewsHour and Politico will host, with CNN also airing it. The Democratic National Committee—as well as some journalists at PBS and Politicoreportedly objected to Politico’s choice for moderator: Tim Alberta, who specializes in coverage of the Republican Party and used to work for National Review. Writing in that magazine this week, Jim Geraghty defended Alberta as “a first-rate journalist,” and told the DNC to “quit whining.”
  • Meanwhile, in Washington: The Times’s Peter Baker writes that Sondland, in his testimony, “put his finger on a distinction often overlooked: For the president, it seemed more important that Ukrainian officials announce that they were investigating Democrats than for them to actually follow through on doing it.” Sondland testified that while parts of the Ukraine quid pro quo were explicit, the president did not tell him directly that military aid was conditional on the announcement of the investigations; instead, Sondland said Trump told him, on a September 9 phone call, that “I want nothing” from Ukraine. By that point, the White House already knew that a whistleblower had flagged Trump’s Ukraine dealings; still, the president emphasized the call to reporters on the White House lawn yesterday, reading “I WANT NOTHING” off of a notepad marked with black Sharpie.
  • Vindman v. Fox: Also yesterday, a lawyer for Alexander Vindman, the government Ukraine expert who testified on Tuesday, demanded that Fox News retract or correct an October segment on Laura Ingraham’s show, during which guest John Yoo suggested Vindman may have committed “espionage.” Fox said that because Yoo was a guest, not Fox staff, he’s “responsible for his own sentiments.”
  • Pizzazz party: After NBC tweeted last week that the first impeachment hearing lacked “pizzazz,” Emily Nussbaum, TV critic at the New Yorker, went looking for it. Pizzazz “was satisfying media shorthand: it was fun to say, spangled in ‘Z’s, faintly vaudevillian—an anxious catchphrase that framed a serious subject. But the word also captured a genuine tension about just what sort of show was being produced here, and for whom.”
  • And finally: Click here for the best impeachment photo so far, from the Post’s Matt McClain.

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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.