The Media Today

Letting the televised impeachment hearings play out

November 13, 2019

On May 17, 1973, the first witness to testify in the Senate’s Watergate hearings took the stand. It wasn’t former White House Counsel John Dean, or former Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, or the burglar James McCord, but Robert C. Odle, Jr., a “baby-faced” 29-year-old who had been the office manager on Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign. Yesterday, on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow revisited coverage of Odle’s testimony on the eve of the first televised impeachment hearing of the Trump era. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” Maddow said of Odle. Lawmakers “were not trying to wow the country coming out of the gate with some big, explosive witness.” Rather, the committee had Odle walk through the organizational structure of the Nixon campaign—who sat next to whom, and so forth. The day after the hearing, the Washington Post’s Jules Witcover wrote that it was “not exactly high drama.” He compared it to watching grass grow.

Maddow returned to Odle because, in her view, today’s House Democrats are taking a similar tack: like Odle, today’s witnesses—Bill Taylor and George Kent, both senior diplomats involved in Ukraine policy—can speak to how things should work, to emphasize the recent aberrations. Still, in 2019, Democrats aren’t betting that viewers will take the time to watch grass grow. Last week, a House leadership aide told CNN’s Lauren Fox that “the first hearing has got to be a blockbuster.” Brian Stelter, of the same network, agreed with the assessment.  “I hate to say this, because we’re talking about basic democracy at risk here—but, from a television perspective, the Democrats have to come out strong in that first episode,” he said on air Sunday. “For the same reason that when we’re watching something on Netflix, or listening to a new podcast, we only choose to keep listening if we’re interested in episode one.”

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Not everyone appreciated that perspective. “Why is CNN so stupid about important shit?” the TV host Soledad O’Brien asked on Twitter. Stelter, she added, “should be ashamed of himself… It’s not a game show and you should stop treating it as such.”

It’s easy to apply the media critic’s favorite binaries—substance v. spin; facts v. optics—to this week’s hearings. When applied to politics, the language of TV instinctively stands for triviality and artifice. There’s no question that the facts matter most here, and are mostly well-established. (Your daily reminder, if needed: Trump admitted to doing the bad thing.) That said, there is a point somewhere in Stelter’s talk of Netflix. Today isn’t the beginning or the end of the impeachment inquiry, or even, necessarily, its zenith: it’s the start of the televised hearings, and so TV optics are inherent to the story, like it or not. The impeachment story is political, and that means it’s about winning over the public, whose understanding will be shaped by TV. In no small part, we’re having these hearings about Ukraine—and not about Robert Mueller, or another Trump scandal—because Democrats see the central story here as simpler, and thus easier to communicate.

The problem with TV-centric takes, perhaps, rests more in the media’s assumptions about TV optics, and our role in shaping them. Mueller’s televised hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in July is instructive here. It was not, by anyone’s definition, a blockbuster. But Mueller never stood a chance. Ahead of time, the media hyped his appearance beyond all proportion, setting a superhuman threshold for excitement. Our inevitable verdict—This is bad TVcame quickly and loudly. There’s reason to hope today will be different: Taylor and Kent lack Mueller’s mythic stature, and, as Eric Boehlert notes for Daily Kos, impeachment is ongoing; this is not the last gasp of a dying story.

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Still, if today’s hearing doesn’t throw up an EXPLOSIVE reveal, plot twist, or viral-worthy clip—and quickly—it’s entirely possible that journalists and pundits, having decided for themselves what viewers consider to be exciting, will declare the whole thing a bust. (Politico’s Playbook already compared it to Jack Ryan: the hearings promise “nonstop, white-knuckle action,” but, “you also know the showrunners probably won’t kill him [Ryan/Trump] off.”) That would be a shame. Second-guessing people’s attention spans is tempting, but can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; if our real-time analysis and punditry gives viewers license to tune out, then we shouldn’t be surprised or scornful when they do. The facts of the Ukraine case are compelling on their merits. We don’t need to contrive narrative whiplash to make them more so.

Yesterday, James Poniewozik—TV critic at the Times and author of an insightful recent book about Trump and television—looked back, like Maddow, to the televised Watergate hearings. The exercise, Poniewozik notes, is “a kind of time travel, a way to experience how different in tone and tenor our media and politics were nearly five decades ago.” Our media landscape is more fragmented, more partisan, and much, much louder than it was back then. As Poniewozik puts it, the experience of watching testimony in 2019 lacks the “shared focus and trust” of 1973.

Still, there are similarities. The concern with optics isn’t entirely new, nor is the idea of divided attention. Poniewozik quotes Jim Lehrer, an anchor during Watergate who told his viewers that public television was airing the hearings because “we think it is important that you get a chance to see the whole thing and make your own judgments. Some nights we may be in competition with the late, late movie.” For sure, it isn’t 1973 anymore. But giving the public the chance to see the whole thing and make its own judgments—without telling them not to bother—still sounds like a pretty good principle.

Below, more on the impeachment hearings:

  • Wall-to-wall coverage, I: Today’s hearing will be live on every news network (including Fox News) from 10am Eastern, with special coverage packaged around it. On Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted US ambassador to Ukraine, will testify, with more witnesses to follow next week.
  • A split-screen moment?: On MSNBC, Maddow and Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, noted that Nixon claimed not to be watching the Watergate hearings as they unfolded. It seems naive to expect the same from Trump, though the president does have one schedule clash today: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the controversial president of Turkey, is visiting the White House.
  • Wall-to-wall coverage, II: Politico’s Michael Calderone profiles the plethora of impeachment podcasts vying to control the narrative. Ukrainegate, he writes, “has sparked a podcast frenzy, with news organizations such as CNN, NBC News, Vox, and WNYC quickly rolling out shows to seize on the heightened interest.”
  • Better things to do: Over on Fox, Tucker Carlson is “loudly ignoring” impeachment, the Post’s Sarah Ellison writes. This week, “while fellow Fox host Sean Hannity will be running the network’s anti-impeachment war room, Carlson will simply be talking about why viewers should care about something—anything—else.” (Remarkably, some Republican senators, who will likely soon be called on to weigh Trump’s conduct, plan to tune today out, too.)
  • Wall-to-wall coverage, III: There’s no network dedicated to watching grass grow, but the Trump administration is planning the next best thing. According to the Post’s Nick Miroff, senior officials are pushing for a livestream of construction on Trump’s border wall. “There will be a wall cam, and it’ll launch early next year,” one official says.

Other notable stories:

  • The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Michael Edison Hayden obtained emails that Stephen Miller sent to Breitbart in 2015 and 2016; in the messages, Miller, then an aide to Jeff Sessions, shared content from the white-nationalist website VDARE and the conspiracy empire InfoWars, and recommended that Breitbart check out a book popular with neo-Nazis, among other far-right references. Miller is now a senior adviser to the president. Katie McHugh, a former Breitbart staffer who shared the emails with the SPLC, said their content “has become policy.” (McHugh has renounced the far right.)
  • Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, contracted at least eight Trumpworld figures to manage her personal brand and “strategic communications,” Politico’s Dan Diamond and Adam Cancryn report. The consultants “charged up to $380 per hour for work traditionally handled by dozens of career civil servants in CMS’s communications department.” Elsewhere in the administration, NBC found that Mina Chang, a senior official in the State Department, created a fake Time magazine cover with her face on it to embellish her résumé. (A follow-up article in Time“How to spot a fake Time cover”—is peak Trump era.)
  • For CJR, Musa al-Gharbi used a data-visualization tool to quantify the Times’s obsession with the president. In 2017, Trump was “directly mentioned every 250 substantive words or so—or, given the typical length of a Times piece, two or three times per article. This average encompasses all articles from across the paper—including the sports, style, food and travel sections. It suggests little is published without some reference to Trump. He is the lens through which many other stories are filtered.”
  • Last year, Michael Bloomberg threatened to scrap his news site’s political coverage should he run for president, because “I don’t want all the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me.” Bloomberg is again weighing a bid, but the reporters working for him are likely safe, the Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert reports: if Bloomberg jumps in, Bloomberg News will continue to cover the race, appending disclaimers to stories where necessary.
  • Robert Allbritton, the owner of Politico, is launching Protocol, a news site that will cover tech “for its own sake.” Protocol already poached talent from Wired, the Times, and elsewhere to work out of New York, San Francisco, DC, and London; nonetheless, it’s entering a crowded market. Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo assesses its prospects.
  • Yesterday, CJR’s Mathew Ingram helped circulate a spreadsheet in which journalists can anonymously share information about their salaries. (Disclaimer: CJR has not independently verified the information in the sheet.) The goal is to spark discussion about pay in the media business, which could be better. You can find the sheet here.
  • And The Atlantic has a bold new look, including a giant letter “A” that dominates the front cover. “The more we explored The Atlantic’s long history, the more we saw that A, Zelig-like, showing up,” Peter Mendelsund, the magazine’s creative director, says. “Which is to say that, although the A seems radical, it is in fact historically grounded.”

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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.