The Media Today

Has the impeachment story stalled?

December 18, 2019

Today, the House of Representatives will vote, for only the third time, to impeach a president of the United States; the charges on this occasion are abuse of power and obstruction of Congress related to President Trump’s conduct with Ukraine. The House vote comes almost exactly three months after we first learned that a whistleblower complaint from within the intelligence community had implicated Trump. A look back on the twists and turns since then—the initial scandal, the initial fallout, the opening of a “formal” inquiry, the actual formalization of that inquiry, epic stonewalling by the White House, the Intelligence Committee hearings, the Judiciary Committee hearings, the drawing of articles, and now, finally, the vote on them—shows just how much our coverage of the impeachment story has changed over time.

In mid-September, the Washington Post was first to the news of Trump and the whistleblower complaint. In the days that followed, the Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal raced thrillingly to fill in the picture; soon, we knew that Trump had pressured Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who had done business in the country. The outrage was immediate, reflecting the gravity of a president soliciting foreign help against a domestic political opponent. (Media types feared the outrage might smear Biden by association; Biden’s name has continued to appear in proximity to the word “corruption,” but a full-fledged crisis of false equivalence has, thankfully, been avoided—in the mainstream press, at least.) Within a week of the Post’s initial story, Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into Trump, having resisted such a step all year. The White House pledged to release a “transcript” (it wasn’t a transcript) of Trump’s call with Zelensky; the media feared obfuscation, but the call notes were remarkably incriminating of the president. In early October, Trump stood on the White House driveway and shouted, over the whirring of his helicopter, that yes, Ukraine should investigate the Bidens—and, for that matter, China should, too.

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Case closed, then? No. Since those early days, an unusually clear story about Trump seems to have become murkier by the day. That’s not because the central facts have been undercut, but because of the present, hellish nature of our information ecosystem. Since the impeachment process began, Trump’s defenders have deflected and lied to muddy the fact pattern around his conduct. Pundits on Fox News and throughout the online right-wing mediasphere have boosted their signal to millions of Americans. Conservative talking heads and Republican operatives (including, shamefully, sitting United States senators) have sown conspiratorial propaganda right across network and cable TV. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer who is at the heart of the Ukraine mess, has acted, at times, as a one-man discombobulation machine, spewing streams of consciouslessness and waving weird documents at bewildered anchors.

Concerted disinformation campaigns are hard for the press to combat. Still, as time has passed, we have failed, on our own terms, to keep the facts front and center. There have been three main problems with coverage. One has had to do with proportionality. The press is fighting a rising tide here, too: in an age of information barrage, simple associations (e.g., “Biden” and “corruption”) can stick more persistently than patterns of wrongdoing, an inversion of the logic that the more evidence there is for something, the more seriously we take it. But the central facts of Trump’s conduct with Ukraine are simple—that they fit on a bumper sticker is a key reason the Democrats finally moved to impeach on this, having declined to do so on the more complex grounds of the Mueller report. As journalists, we seem to have internalized the idea that egregious wrongdoing can only be found in envelopes smuggled between gloved hands in parking garages. But as I wrote in October, “not every big reveal need come at the end of a story. Sometimes, it comes at the beginning.” Sometimes, it comes from the mouth of the president of the United States. We seem remarkably unequipped to handle wrongdoers who say the quiet part loud.

Another problem, related to the idea of proportionality, is that the standards underpinning the impeachment story have kept shifting. In mid-September, Trump pressuring Zelensky to help him investigate domestic rivals was the crux of the scandal, and considered to be Very Bad on its own terms. Since then, extra damning information has come to light: we learned that the Trump-Zelensky call was part of a broader pressure campaign that involved—in highly generous language—two “quid pro quos,” around a White House meeting for Zelensky and vital US military aid to Ukraine. (Aid was delivered, but not before the whistleblower made his complaint.) This information ought only to have bolstered the charges against Trump; for many observers, it did. Still, at any given moment, it felt like many in the media—driven, no doubt, by the constant, insatiable demand for “new” information—kept resting the entire case on the latest point of contention. When no smoking gun emerged linking Trump directly to the withholding of aid, there was chatter that the Democrats had taken a hit. How does the frog-boiling story go again?

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In recent weeks, a third big problem, that of political framing, has intensified. Impeachment is a political process. Increasingly, however, it’s been communicated as a dispute between the contrary-yet-equivalent arguments of two warring parties. Away from the bothsidesism (which I wrote about at length on Monday), we’ve seen a relentless focus on impeachment polling, often accompanied by sighing about our irreparably polarized country. The polls have shown division, and have been relatively static; still, the gridlock framing is selective. Support for impeaching and removing the president is historically high—by the standards of the Trump era, and of history. The cumulative effect, I wrote Monday, is that instead of reinforcing the facts, “we’re telling the public that politicians aren’t budging from their partisan siloes, and vice versa.” The risks of self-fulfilling prophecy are obvious.

Generalizing, of course, is perilous. We have seen much good impeachment coverage, including sharp historical context, useful efforts to situate the Ukraine story on the longer Mueller/Russia arc, follow-the-money investigations, and anchors (finally) getting commensurately angry at maddening Republican propaganda. Still, all too often, the mainstream press has allowed itself to be weaponized by bad actors, and made unforced errors abetting their distraction campaign. The House is all but certain to impeach Trump today; the Senate is all but certain to hold his trial in January. Whether we’ll have learned necessary lessons by then remains an open question.

Below, more on impeachment and Trump:

  • Perception v. reality: Yesterday, Trump sent a six-page screed to Pelosi, painting himself as the victim of “an illegal, partisan attempted coup,” and accusing Pelosi of “offending Americans of faith” when she says she’s praying for the president. The letter was excerpted widely in the media. As Quinta Jurecic, of Lawfare, tweeted, “Reading the full letter vs. reading the news alerts and headlines… is as good a demonstration as any of the distance between what Trump actually sounds like vs. the massively more coherent person media coverage makes him out to be.”
  • Talking heads: The rules for Trump’s Senate trial are still in flux. Yesterday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who has said he is “not an impartial juror” because “this is a political process”—rebuffed Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s opening offer on the trial, including that Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton be called as witnesses. McConnell chided Schumer for briefing his demands to the press ahead of time.
  • Marie story: In this week’s New Yorker, Giuliani admitted to reporter Adam Entous that he wanted Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted US ambassador to Ukraine, “out of the way” because “she was going to make the investigations difficult for everybody.” On Monday, Giuliani doubled down on Fox News; “I forced her out because she’s corrupt,” he said of Yovanovitch. Meanwhile, Graphika, a social-media analysis company, found that a Russian disinformation network helped to smear Yovanovitch. The Post has more.
  • Gates keeper: Yesterday, Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign aide who flipped on the president during the Mueller probe, was sentenced to 45 days in jail and three years probation. The judge in his case, Amy Berman Jackson, weighed in on efforts to manipulate the media, including by Gates. “If people don’t have the facts,” she said, “democracy doesn’t work.”

Other notable stories:

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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.