The Media Today

The impeachment story hits warp speed

September 25, 2019

Life comes at you fast. For years—but especially since Democrats took control of the House in January—chatter about possible impeachment proceedings against President Trump has eddied in the media. As the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller ticked on, pundits frequently invoked the i-word after damning scoops and court filings, followed by a lull as Mueller continued to work in near-silence. We anticipated that the story would crescendo to a dramatic finale, but its resolution was more Beckett than Shakespeare. William Barr, the US attorney general, muddied the waters around the final report; in the months after its release, there was no sudden rush to impeach, but rather a trickle of House Democrats supporting maybe doing something, and a confusing lattice of committee investigations that both was and wasn’t an “impeachment inquiry,” depending on who you asked. A hearing with former White House counsel Don McGahn was meant to be a turning point, but it didn’t happen. Ditto a hearing with Mueller, which fizzled.

Then, yesterday, a dam broke. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker who had resisted colleagues’ push to impeach, announced an “official impeachment inquiry,” instigated by reports that Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son. “This week, the president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically,” she said at a news conference. “The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable facts of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office.” Procedurally, the announcement changed little. (Absent a floor vote, the inquiry isn’t really “official,” and there is not yet a timeline for how Democrats plan to proceed.) Politically, however, it was a bombshell. The New York Times, CNN, and HuffPost, among others, responded with blaring all-caps headlines; “Hot Girl Summer Is Out,” BuzzFeed screamed, “Impeachment Fever Fall Is In.” Impeachment coverage accelerated to warp speed. Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, barely broke stride as he marched past reporters in Congress. “I have only one thing to say,” he said. “Full speed ahead.”

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“How is today any different than yesterday?” someone shouted at the back of Nadler’s head. It was a fair question: why is the Ukraine episode a tipping point for Democrats? The Times and the Washington Post both addressed it in analysis pieces. The answer arguably has as much to do with messaging as substance—as the Post’s Amber Phillips put it, “There was a lot of nuance in the Mueller report that didn’t fit on a bumper sticker. By contrast, the Ukraine allegations can be summed up in a sentence.” The Times’s Carl Hulse heard a similar rationale directly from Democratic lawmakers. Impeachment, ultimately, is more a political process than a judicial one. Going forward, journalists—whose job it is to weigh evidence in as nuanced a way as possible—will have to wrestle with that reality in their coverage.

The process, already messy, will today get even messier. Trump has promised to release a transcript of a call with Ukraine’s president, ostensibly to prove he said nothing untoward. It was an uncharacteristic pledge of transparency, and reporters quickly voiced their suspicions about it. The “transcript” of the call is likely to be based on administration notes, not a recording. Some observers pointed out that earlier this month, the White House doctored a weather map using a Sharpie to “vindicate” a bogus Trump claim about a hurricane. “At this point, we don’t know if we can trust any document produced by the White House, frankly,” Chris Hayes said on his MSNBC show. “I mean, it’s terrible to say that. But true.”

Several journalists stressed that the transcript, even if reliable, isn’t the whole story: the whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s conduct with Ukraine triggered this whole episode reportedly alleged multiple instances of troubling behavior. Politico’s Nancy Cook reported yesterday evening that the White House now also plans to release the whistleblower complaint to Congress, along with an inspector general report into the matter. Such transparency is welcome—and legally required—but it’s unlikely to resolve anything cleanly. This White House, of course, has form when it comes to using official disclosures to manipulate the media. Barr’s summary of the Mueller report turned out to be misleading, but by the time the report was released several weeks later, the administration’s preferred narrative—nothing to see here—was baked in, and hard for the press to debunk. As Cook notes, the transcript coming out before the whistleblower complaint could be a similar attempt by the White House to “use the sequencing of the release of information to its advantage.” Whatever those documents say, right-wing media boosters will roll the pitch for the president. (In fact, they already got to work.)

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The routine distractions, deflections, and outright lies of the Trump era will add unwanted layers of complexity to an impeachment story that, at the best of times, is not easy to tell. As many of her cable competitors jumped right into the weeds, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow opened her monologue with a refreshingly long view on the history of impeachment. “Anybody who tells you there’s a clear, bright line in American history about how these things go, and how the Constitution dictates these things… that’s sort of a civic fantasy,” she warned. “The way it works in real life is much like a civic thriller.” Buckle in.

Below, more on impeachment:

  • Rudy awakening: Earlier this year, Axios reported that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, “has vanished from your television”; Trump was reportedly unhappy with his performances. It’s safe to say Giuliani is back—he’s emerged as a central character in the Ukraine episode, and in recent days has had the screen time to match. Yesterday, he gave a head-spinning, sweat-dabbing interview to Fox’s Laura Ingraham, who then brought Giuliani back to yell at liberal pundit Chris Hahn. “This man is a joke,” Giuliani said of Hahn, then moved his mouth like a fish to mock Hahn’s response.
  • Keeping tabs: Politico has a laudably detailed graphics package breaking down where every Democratic House member currently stands on impeachment. “The vast majority of representatives from districts that voted for Trump in 2016 have not yet publicly supported impeachment,” it notes.
  • Free exposure for The Atlantic: Ahead of her official impeachment announcement, Pelosi kept a scheduled appearance at The Atlantic Festival, where she was interviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg, the magazine’s editor in chief; predictably, there was widespread media interest in her remarks. “Now we have the facts. We’re ready… for later today,” she said. We all know what happened next.
  • Seriously? Today?: Facebook confirmed yesterday that in most cases, it won’t remove posts by politicians that would ordinarily fall foul of the platform’s rules. Also speaking at The Atlantic Festival, Nick Clegg, a top Facebook executive, said, “We do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact-checkers.” The timing was less than ideal.

Other notable stories:

  • New York has a new owner: Vox Media is buying the magazine’s parent company, New York Media, in an all-stock deal, the Times’s Marc Tracy and Edmund Lee report. Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media, promised that the takeover will not result in layoffs; Pam Wasserstein, CEO of New York Media, who is staying on, said the deal is “not out of need. It’s out of ambition.” (Wasserstein would not comment on the company’s finances; in March, New York Media laid off 5 percent of its staff.) On Twitter, some New York staffers said theyand their union—learned of the merger from the Times’s article.
  • Yesterday, a judge dismissed a lawsuit by Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American freelance journalist who claims he was wrongly placed on a US “kill list” in Syria due to his frequent contacts with militants linked to al-Qaida. The judge ruled that the Trump administration was entitled to withhold information central to the case under state-secret rules. Lawyers for Abdul Kareem, who claims he has nearly been hit five times by US airstrikes in Syria, accused the government of prioritizing the assertion of national security over their client’s life. The Post’s Spencer S. Hsu has more.
  • For CJR, Tony Biasotti explores a new law in California, designed to regulate the gig economy, that will cap freelancers’ submissions to any individual outlet at 35 per year. (Initially, freelance journalism looked set to be banned outright; the threshold is the result of a negotiated carveout.) One freelancer tells Biasotti: “I’m glad the state of California is looking out for workplace issues and benefit, but I don’t see a way this bill helps me.”
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission charged Comscore, an analytics company that measures web traffic, and Serge Matta, its former CEO, with fraud; Comscore and Matta will settle the case for a combined $5.7 million, without conceding wrongdoing. The SEC accused Comscore of inflating its reported revenue and making “false and misleading statements about key performance metrics.”
  • Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN and head of news and sports at its parent company, WarnerMedia, is the leading candidate to be WarnerMedia’s next CEO should the role become vacant, NBC’s Dylan Byers reports. Zucker would be a risky pick due to his rocky past tenure atop NBCUniversal and current fractious relationship with Trump, sources say, but bosses at AT&T, WarnerMedia’s owner, may promote him anyway.
  • CJR’s new fellow Akintunde Ahmad checked in on “Journalists Under Fire,” an exhibit by the Committee to Protect Journalists and United Photo Industries that’s showing at the Photoville festival in Brooklyn Bridge Park. It showcases the work of 10 photojournalists, “all of whom have been killed, jailed, or threatened.”
  • And William Lee, the founder and publisher of the Sacramento Observer, an African American newspaper serving California’s state capital, has died aged 83. Marcos Bretón writes for the Sacramento Bee that Lee “was not only a publisher. He was a visionary.”

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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.