The Media Today

Democrats’ John Dean hearing is a flop

June 11, 2019

James Comey. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. Michael Cohen. In the Trump era, a handful of blockbuster Congressional hearings have fixed us to our TV screens. John Dean’s session before the House Judiciary Committee—the first in a series of hearings Democrats hope will dramatize the Mueller report for viewers—was never likely to be as captivating. Even the Democrats who called Dean would have preferred to be hearing from Don McGahn (the White House counsel turned key Mueller witness whose testimony was blocked by Trump) or from Mueller (who doesn’t want to appear). Nonetheless, Democrats hoped Dean, who served as Richard Nixon’s White House counsel and played a key role in Nixon’s downfall, would leave a mark on the public.

The historical parallels are obvious. But the Dean hearing did not capture public attention the way Democrats might have hoped. Cable news channels covered a helicopter crash in Manhattan instead. Last night, Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat who serves on House Judiciary, chided the media for ignoring the hearing: “It should have been on MSNBC, it should have been on CNN, it should have been on Fox, and not just on C-SPAN 3,” he said.

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But the premise that the Dean hearing would grab attention was always flawed. While the viewing public needs a better grasp of the facts of the Mueller report, Dean has no place among those facts. Historical context can be highly instructive, but the public has hardly been deprived of Dean’s perspective: he’s a regular commentator on CNN. (After he finished with the hearing, he went on Anderson Cooper’s show to talk about it.) As Yashar Ali, a prominent freelance journalist, tweeted, “To think that testimony by John Dean… would be agenda-setting and widely watched shows a detachment from reality.”

Nor was the hearing especially compelling television for those who tuned in. Dean shared the spotlight with other witnesses: Joyce White Vance and Barb McQuade—former federal prosecutors who themselves regularly appear on MSNBC—as well as John Malcolm, from the conservative Heritage Foundation. Some moments were mildly entertaining. Matt Gaetz, the Trump-boosting Congressman from Florida, asked Dean how many presidents he’d accused of “being Richard Nixon.” Dean responded that Gaetz was not alive at that time. But even that exchange slid off-topic; Gaetz, bizarrely, asked Dean about Medicare for All. As a whole, the hearing was a familiar mix of grandstanding, point-scoring, and diversion.

The session did feature in yesterday’s evening news cycle. Pundits on the left and the right cited the same evidence—the Gaetz clip, for example—to make completely divergent points. Conservatives (including the president) took aim at Dean’s credibility: at the top of his Fox News show, Sean Hannity called Dean a “convicted felon” and “fake-news-CNN conspiracy theorist.” This morning, however, Dean’s name is nowhere to be found on the homepages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press, and NPR. Of the sites I checked, only MSNBC has it as the splash—and even then, the linked clip, of a panel discussion from Deadline: White House with Nicolle Wallace, quickly moves past the Dean hearing to discuss the Mueller probe as a whole. Despite Trump’s tweets about Dean, even “the White House didn’t take today all that seriously,” the AP’s Jonathan Lemire told Wallace.

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Yesterday’s proceedings reflect a sharp truth about the attention economy and the Mueller report. As Aaron Blake writes in The Washington Post, Dean’s account of the parallels between Watergate and now was compelling, on its merits. But as Blake’s colleague Margaret Sullivan pointed out on Sunday, our present institutional context does not match that of the early 1970s. Sullivan includes the media in her assessment: during Watergate, there were three networks and no internet; now, news consumers have to contend with “a polluted firehose-blast of information mixed with disinformation.” Dean’s words—however resonant—were never going to cut through that noise.

Below, more on Congress and the ongoing Mueller story:

  • Handing over the goods: The Dean hearing wasn’t even the biggest story on the Mueller beat yesterday. Following weeks of talks, the Justice Department finally agreed to provide Congress with some of the key evidence underpinning Mueller’s report. According to the Times’s Nicholas Fandos, “the precise scope, volume or usefulness of the material was not immediately clear”; nonetheless, the deal “appeared to provide a rationale” for House Democrats’ recent move away from holding William Barr, the attorney general, in contempt of Congress.
  • A better box-office move: Impeachment hearings would attract public attention, of course. But the Democratic caucus remains divided on the measure, and, as Russell Berman writes for The Atlantic, yesterday’s hearing moved them no closer. Jon Favreau, a former Obama staffer and host of the liberal podcast Pod Save America, tweeted: “Impeachment hearings are the only way to ensure television coverage of Trump investigations. It’s the only way to take the microphone away from Trump. If you’re still against it, fine, but don’t expect regular hearings to command the same kind of media attention.”
  • Stranger than fiction: According to the Post’s Drew Harwell, Google has been flagging the Mueller report as “fiction” when people search for it. The error was corrected after the Post flagged it.

Some news from the home front:
This morning, CJR announced the appointment of four public editors who will serve as watchdogs for the biggest news organizations in the country: Gabriel Snyder, for The New York Times; Ana Marie Cox, for The Washington Post; Maria Bustillos, for MSNBC; and Emily Tamkin, for CNN. “They’ll be ready to call out mistakes, observe bad habits, and give praise where it’s due,” Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, writes. “Most importantly, these public editors will engage with readers and viewers, bridging a critical gap.” Read more here.


Other notable stories:

  • On Sunday, the Times published a story—based on a new study by the News Media Alliance, an industry lobby group—claiming that Google made $4.7 billion from the news industry in 2018. Yesterday, a number of prominent experts in digital-media business models savaged the study and the Times for uncritically promoting it. “While it’s true that revenue for newspapers has declined sharply over the past two decades, and revenue for Google and Facebook has increased just as dramatically, it’s not accurate to say that one increasing caused the other to drop,” CJR’s Mathew Ingram writes. The News Media Alliance is supporting a bill that would allow publishers to collectively lobby big tech companies for better financial terms. Today, a House of Representatives antitrust panel will hear testimony in favor of the bill. CNN’s Brian Stelter has a curtain-raiser.
  • Last week, Facebook disabled a suite of advanced-search features without advance warning. BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman reports that the move has impeded efforts by researchers and investigative journalists to find open-source material documenting potential war crimes and human-rights abuses. (Facebook also blocked potential workarounds.) The company’s decision is significant: the International Criminal Court has, in the past, used video evidence found on Facebook to issue warrants.
  • At a time of increased tensions between the US and Iran, Thomas Erdbrink, the Times’s correspondent in Tehran, has been blocked from working since February, when Iran authorities rescinded his press credentials. They have not given a reason. Meanwhile, Jason Rezaian, the Post’s former Iran correspondent who spent time in jail in the country, claims tweets attacking him for being “soft” on the Iranian regime were linked to a project funded by the US State Department. (State has since suspended the funding.)
  • After weeks of upheaval following the departure of Jay Fielden, Esquire has a new editor-in-chief. According to the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly, Michael Sebastian, who was in charge of the magazine’s digital output, will ascend to the top job, while Nick Sullivan, Esquire’s long-serving fashion director, will take on a new role as creative director. One of Sebastian’s first tasks will be to fill out the magazine’s “decimated” masthead.
  • Vice News Tonight will end in September after HBO canceled the show, The Hollywood Reporter’s Natalie Jarvey reports. Josh Tyrangiel, its chief architect, is on his way out of Vice; Jesse Angelo, former chairman and CEO of the New York Post, is on his way in. Angelo will take on a new role overseeing news, television, and digital at Vice, which is at work on a new show for Hulu while shopping a daily news show to other distributors.
  • For CJR, Eileen Guo profiles Self Evident, a new podcast that “aims to better reflect the myriad experiences and communities that fall under the vague umbrella term ‘Asian American,’ while emphasizing that, ultimately, Asian American stories are also American stories.” Its early episodes, Guo writes,”have a production value more common to NPR-backed projects than an independent show in its first season.”
  • ThinkProgress—a progressive news site linked to the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank—is “bleeding staff” as it struggles financially, The Daily Beast’s Gideon Resnick and Sam Stein report. The site staffed up following the 2016 election, but donations and traffic have since declined. Its troubles have been “exacerbated by what a source described as a failure of leadership at CAP to provide answers about ‘the short- and long-term future of the site,’” Resnick and Stein write.
  • And Simon Maloy, a senior writer at Media Matters for America, died yesterday. On Twitter—where Maloy was an active, witty presence—former colleagues, as well as journalists who simply enjoyed his tweets, paid tribute. Media Matters’s Rebecca Lenn called Maloy “a giant” of the progressive movement.

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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.