When some outlets proclaimed the start of impeachment hearings into President Trump insufficiently dazzling, a predictable backlash ensued. But did they have a point? I spoke with senior writer Eric Levitz and senior editor Margaret Hartmann about the standards we use to judge newsworthiness.
Ben: The Twitterati were up in arms on Wednesday and Thursday over the framing of some news stories about the first day of public impeachment hearings. An NBC News article and a Reuters piece titled “Consequential, But Dull: Trump Impeachment Hearings Begin Without a Bang” drew scorn for seeming to treat politics as entertainment, and to automatically discard dry recitations of the facts as uninteresting (which has also become a GOP talking point this week). These complaints recalled those around Robert Mueller’s testimony — some were annoyed that his shaky performance seemed to matter as much if not more than what he was saying. To take a different view, these hearings ARE a performance of sorts, and the millions of people watching at home need to be at least somewhat emotionally invested in what they’re watching. Where do you come down on this question of entertainment versus news value? And did you find what you watched to be dull?
Margaret: I think it was dull but necessary. Of course there’s an entertainment element to this. If not, we’d just have anchors read out the transcript of what these people said in closed-door testimony. As I understood it, the point was partly to record what they know for posterity and give lawmakers an opportunity to question them, but it was also to present an engaging case to the American public — particularly those who haven’t been following all the testimony coverage that closely up to this point.
Eric: I think the fundamental tension inherent to political news analysis — of impeachment, or debate performances, or campaign addresses — is that the pundits are writing for a niche audience of obsessives who are eager to get some insight into how politically consequential whatever they just witnessed was. And yet, when writers at major news outlets supply this analysis, they aren’t merely analyzing how the event in question will be perceived by the broader public, but exercising some degree of influence over how it will be perceived. And so people get (understandably) pissed off when they see journalists focusing on the drab theatrics of Wednesday’s performance, rather than working to elucidate its substance — which includes evidence of serious abuses of presidential power — because this might produce the very public indifference it predicts.
On the other hand, the theatrics are the “news” here. The underlying facts of this matter have been clear for nearly two months now. So I feel like it’s sorta understandable that that’s where a lot of analysts focused their attention. And anyhow, the vast majority of cable news coverage of this is almost certainly erring on the side of overhyping/sensationalizing the hearings.
I don’t think the news media has a generalized bias towards downplaying how exciting the top story of the day is.
Margaret: To that point, as a person who watched the WHOLE hearing, I felt like I could tell which parts were happening for cable news consumption. Taylor and Kent reading their statements was hard to follow, and when the Dems prosecutor started questioning them it felt like he was trying to get them to sum up what they said in 30-second sound bites that could be packaged into MSNBC segments.
Eric: Wednesday’s hearing did feel a bit like a special cable-news crossover episode. Like the Flintstones Meet the Jetsons but for the Hannity and Maddow audiences, in that the Republicans’ questions were largely embedded in alternative meta-narratives developed on Fox News and aimed at supplying new sound bites to spotlight on Fox News.
Margaret: Haha, yeah, Brian Stelter’s newsletter had a recap of Fox News coverage, which apparently proclaimed that the day was a TRIUMPH for Trump.
Ben: Media critics like Margaret Sullivan have stressed that people who write about these hearings should focus less on how they will play to the general public and more simply on what’s happening, how our understanding of events have changed, etc. Is it realistic to completely decouple one of these things from the other?
Eric: I think coverage of the hearings should probably focus on newly revealed information. And since new facts about the hearings’ underlying subject were few and far between, I think it makes some sense to focus on the spectacle itself. But that doesn’t necessarily require making baseless guesses about how this will register. I think you can write interestingly about the nature of the Republican lawmakers’ arguments, how Taylor and Kent aimed to stay above the fray, and how Democrats went about trying to construct their public case for impeachment without proclaiming winners or losers, or projecting a response onto the median viewer.
Margaret: No, I don’t think that’s realistic. If it’s just about how our understanding changed, the recap would be two paragraphs long. There was only one bit of new information.
Ben: What role does the country’s seemingly immovable polarization play in this dynamic? Has the press (or at least some of it) become overly focused on imagining the one magical thing that could win over hard-core Republicans, and thus adopted an overly cynical, nothing-will-ever-change sort of attitude?
Eric: I think parts of the press are self-conscious about the infinite number of times in the last four years when Trump did something so beyond the pale — by standards that seemed so trans-ideological (you don’t mock prisoners of war or the disabled, you can’t overtly sabotage investigations into your friends, etc.) — that they declared he’d finally gone too far. So now, when Bill Taylor delivers a dry lecture on U.S. grand strategy in Eastern Europe, which also sketches an outline of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors, they feel compelled to signal that they aren’t falling for this one. They know this isn’t going to change anything that “grab-em by the pussy” failed to.
Ben: Which is also understandable, right?
Margaret: But your question suggests there’s also this hope that we will get a “smoking gun” that magically changes everything, it just needs to be more nuts than the crazy Trump stuff we see every day. A tape of the president of the United States engaged in some kind of taboo sexual act, perhaps? #DontStopPeelieving
Eric: Haha. I mean, I think we all agree that nothing is going to restore our nation to the levels of (perceived) unity that having only three news networks, a booming middle-class economy, and a bipartisan agreement to leave white supremacy alone provided in the 1950s or whatever. The question is about marginal changes in public opinion, since those could be enough to decide whether Trump retains power in 2021.
And it does seem possible to me that the impeachment process as a whole could meaningfully influence public opinion. Wednesday’s hearing contained no new information for us or our core readers. But presumably some people are going to be tuning in for the first time at some point in the coming weeks. #lolmaybesomethingwillmatter
Ben: Words to live by.