The Media Today

Remember Trump’s first impeachment while covering his second

January 13, 2021

The Trump news cycle never stops accelerating. When he took office in January 2017, it already felt like events were moving at breakneck speed; with three years and fifty-one weeks of hindsight, the pace back then looks almost leisurely. Trump’s biggest scandals attest to the effect: the Robert Mueller story, which we often covered with breathless anticipation, took more than two years to unfold; Trump’s first impeachment—a story that hit “warp speed,” as I put it, in late September 2019—only concluded four months later. The word “first” is necessary here because the House of Representatives will today vote to impeach Trump again, just one week after he incited a mob of his supporters to storm the Capitol in service of a coup, and one week before he is scheduled to leave office. On the eve of the impeachment vote, Catherine Rampell, a columnist at the Washington Post, tweeted a gif of a dam breaking. It was an apt analogy not just for this week but for the last four years of the news cycle: as I’ve written before, big stories don’t happen in a vacuum, but push at each other, like water tumbling downhill.

The dam on everyone’s mind yesterday was the Republican Party in Congress, some of whose leading members have decided that the time is finally right to crack the edifice of Trumpism. The New York Times reported that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader (for now), privately welcomes impeachment, which he sees as an opportunity to purge his party of Trump, and that Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, opposes impeachment but won’t try to stop his members from backing it. Yesterday, several of them said they would vote to impeach; the most notable among them—Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican—put out a scalding statement that stoked a media firestorm. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said she sounded like a liberal Democrat. “This is a big deal,” ABC’s Jon Karl said; her decision will “no doubt open the floodgates for Republicans,” Norah O’Donnell, of CBS, added. “Tonight,” Chris Cuomo said at the top of his CNN show, “there is reason for hope. Things are very much in flux, but we’ve never heard what we’ve heard tonight: Republicans may want their party back from Trump.”

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Not that we should get too carried away just yet. Nor should we talk broadly of “Republicans” when many of them continue to worship Trump. (Yesterday, at least six of the party’s lawmakers seethed at having to walk through a metal detector to reach the House floor—a number greater than the sum of Republican lawmakers who had, as of this morning, pledged publicly to impeach.) More will surely follow with the vote imminent, but we also urgently need public clarity as to where McConnell and his Senate colleagues stand, both on impeachment and scheduling; anonymous briefings to the press won’t cut it, just as the anonymous Republican assurances that they knew really that Trump lost the election didn’t cut it in November and December. The press should remember, too, that—contrary to what Republicans said last time—an impeachment need not be bipartisan to be legitimate. Emphasizing the broadness of support is currently warranted, but it is a political metric, not a moral one. As was the case with the last impeachment, Trump did the bad thing, irrespective of his co-partisans’ acknowledgement.

We should also make more room to reflect on the lessons of Trump’s first impeachment and the Mueller probe, both of which have been curiously absent from coverage so far, some procedural explainers and comparisons aside. (During the first impeachment, I wrote that the press should focus more on the troubling long-term precedents Trump’s lawyers were setting around transparency. Not so long-term, after all.) These past scandals are immediately relevant to the new one, since they both involved Trump and dark electoral chicanery. As The Atlantic’s David A. Graham put it in a prescient piece two days before the Capitol insurrection, “Trump’s current, shambling coup attempt is the price of the Senate’s failure to remove him.” During the first impeachment, for instance, Cheney—who now views Trump as a danger to the republiccalled Democrats a danger to the republic for trying to remove him; she called their efforts a “sham,” and, according to Time, sent nightly emails to her colleagues throughout the process highlighting quotes they could share in support of Trump’s exoneration. A reporter should ask her about that now, or at least mention it. Trump’s disregard for democracy has long been obvious, and accountability demands that we remember those who could have curtailed it but didn’t, rather than allowing them to pull a late handbrake turn toward the right side of history.

The Mueller and first impeachment stories also contain pertinent lessons for the practice of journalism. As I’ve written elsewhere, both stories involved clear, damning fact patterns that too many outlets muddied in their coverage—chattering emptily about optics, contriving novelty and controversy where there was none, and routinely giving an unchallenged platform to bare-faced Republican lies. Trump, in his relentless corruption and impunity, has given the press chance after chance to improve its scandal coverage. This do-over will be our last (while Trump remains in office, at any rate) and the stakes could scarcely be higher. We must center the facts, be distracted by neither circus nor sophistry, and remember that, as Graham put it in The Atlantic, “all of this could have been prevented.” The dam should not have held this long.

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Below, more on impeachment 2.0:

  • How to cover impeachment: CNN’s Oliver Darcy asked media-watchers including the Post’s Margaret Sullivan, NBC’s Ben Collins, and the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik for tips on how reporters should approach their coverage of Trump’s second impeachment. “Use plain, descriptive language that doesn’t tiptoe around reality,” Sullivan advised. “There is not enough discussion of moral authority in mainstream media,” Zurawik said. “Use it in the coverage.”
  • Executive time: Yesterday, Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey, and Philip Rucker, of the Post, published a blow-by-blow account of Trump’s failure to act as his supporters stormed the Capitol. Republican lawmakers tried without success to reach the president by phone as he sat in the White House watching the chaos unfold. “He was hard to reach, and you know why? Because it was live TV,” a Trump adviser said. “If it’s TiVo, he just hits pause and takes the calls. If it’s live TV, he watches it, and he was just watching it all unfold.”
  • Another ban: YouTube has suspended Trump’s channel for at least one week on the grounds that a video it posted incited violence, though the platform did not specify which video it was talking about. As CNN’s Brian Fung reports, “Until now, YouTube had been the only remaining major social media platform not to have suspended Trump in some fashion.” Facebook and Twitter kicked him off their platforms last week.
  • A Marine at the Capitol: Patricia Kime, of, profiles Chris Jones, a Marine veteran and Report for America corps member who covered the Capitol insurrection for 100 Days in Appalachia, a newsroom in West Virginia. “The same social and personal forces that compel a 16-year-old kid in Kandahar to join the Taliban are the same forces that convince an 18-year-old Chris Jones to join the Marine Corps… or a young man to join a local militia group,” Jones said. “It’s just a race for who gets ahold of that person first.”
  • Going forward: As I wrote recently, voting rights and election integrity should remain a priority beat for newsrooms going forward, and not just at election time. Yesterday, Chalkbeat, a nonprofit newsroom that covers education, announced that Votebeat, a short-term project that it launched in October, will now continue to cover voting at the local level through the midterms in 2022. Jessica Huseman, formerly of ProPublica, will serve as Votebeat’s editorial director. Sara Fischer has more for Axios.

Other notable stories:

  • According to Johns Hopkins University, the US set a new daily record for coronavirus deaths yesterday; even before the numbers were finalized, the daily rate surpassed four thousand for just the second time since the pandemic began. Sara Sidner, of CNN, broke down on air while describing her reporting in hospitals in California. “It’s just not okay. It’s not okay what we’re doing to each other,” she said. “These families should not be going through this.” In other pandemic news, Google pledged to donate $3 million to help news and fact-checking organizations fight back against vaccine misinformation.
  • In local-news news, Jim Friedlich of the Lenfest Institute, a nonprofit that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, writes for CJR that he hopes wealthy, civic-minded local buyers step up to save papers owned by Tribune from the cost-slashing tactics of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that is Tribune’s largest shareholder and wants to take full control of the company. Elsewhere, Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire profiles the Tiny News Collective, a project that will help enterprising journalists set up local newsrooms. It aims to foster five-hundred new outlets in three years, with half of them in underserved communities.
  • Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor at the Times, replied to public-radio stations that wrote to the paper criticizing The Daily, its flagship podcast, for the way it handled the controversy around Caliphate, a Times podcast that was recently found to contain errors. (The stations all rebroadcast The Daily.) Dolnick wrote that Michael Barbaro, The Daily’s host, “regrets” sending messages to critics of Caliphate “that may have made recipients feel that their criticism was unwelcome,” and that The Daily shouldn’t have run an episode featuring Andy Mills, a producer on Caliphate, so soon after the controversy.
  • Last year, Condé Nast launched a podcast network—but most of the people who worked on its slate of shows are no longer with the company. Yesterday, eleven of its former contract workers alleged that bosses “mishandled their employment, outsourced their work to additional contractors, and, generally, bungled the network through mismanagement,” as Ashley Carman writes for The Verge. The shows’ fate is unclear.
  • Wesley Lowery, formerly of the Post and now of CBS News, is joining the Marshall Project, where he’ll “spearhead a new initiative to develop original locally-reported investigative stories” as a contributing editor. (He’ll continue to work for CBS.) Last year, Lowery wrote an influential op-ed for the Times outlining the flaws of the media industry’s traditional definition of objectivity, which CJR discussed here and here.
  • Amid the pandemic and ahead of elections this week, newspapers in Uganda have been struggling to survive; Apophia Agiresaasi, of Global Press Journal, reports that roughly twenty-five papers have shuttered, at least temporarily, due to dwindling newsstand sales, while others have cut staff. The government of Yoweri Museveni, who is seeking a sixth term as president, has blocked access to social media ahead of tomorrow’s vote.
  • Marian Kočner—a businessman in Slovakia who was acquitted, last year, of ordering the murder of Ján Kuciak, a Slovak journalist, and his fiancée—is now going to jail on separate charges that he forged promissory notes to extract millions of dollars from the former owner of a TV station. Prosecutors in Kuciak’s case are appealing Kočner’s acquittal on the murder charges. (In 2019, I wrote for CJR about Kuciak’s legacy.)
  • Sir David Barclay—who, along with his twin brother, Frederick, owned the Telegraph, a conservative newspaper in the UK—has died. He was eighty-six. The brothers, who gained a reputation for being intensely private, built a business empire spanning shipping, retail, and hotels, and faced controversies surrounding their tax affairs.
  • And an appeals court ruled this week that the Louisville Courier-Journal did not infringe on a bakery owner’s trademark when it published a recipe for derby pie, a dessert containing chocolate and nuts. A judge ruled that the paper did “not denote the recipe for the Derby-Pie but a recipe for a ‘Derby pie.’” Courthouse News Service has more.

ICYMI: Fox News and the real insurrection

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.