Virtual Reporting

I am sitting on a swivel seat in the front row of the press gallery at the Senate trial of the president – next to Dominick Dunne. We are looking down on the heads of the senators as they enter the chamber, counting rugs – Senator Roth, of the Roth IRA, sports the most obvious one.

Ruff wheels in under us; Thurmond comes dazedly down the Republican aisle; Conrad from North Dakota rubs his hand along his colleagues’ shoulders; Leahy gives Orrin Hatch a pinch; even Schumer, here only a few weeks, extends several rubs. The stenographers, like cigarette girls, with their machines hung from their necks, move into place.

Dunne, perhaps the nation’s most prominent trial reporter and certainly its most socially well-connected, is on the lookout for celebrities in the gallery: He spots the Kennedy sisters, Eunice and Pat; Frank Langella and Whoopi Goldberg; laterAl Franken. The young and earnest wonk reporters around us – Dunne and I are the only non-legislative specialists here – seem uncertain about howto regard such extra-political interest. They are respect-ful, though. One notes that Whoopi has been here every day and praises her attention span; another sees the issue as how Whoopi has gotten an all-day pass (suggesting he’ll take a look at contributor disclosure filings).

Uncertainly – but no more uncertainly than the senators themselves – we rise for the chief justice, perhaps the trial’s most aggrieved participant (he has been reduced to ceremonial functionary).

And we settle in.

I would have thought that covering an impeachment of a president should be the zenith of a reporter’s career (how many of us began these careers because of Watergate?). But aside from Dunne, there’s little to indicate that the press gallery is the hot place to be. In attendance are only the daily reporters who are posted to Congress, and the wonk reporters from insider publications like Salon, Slate, The New Republic, and The Hill; Time correspondent and Capital Gang regular Margaret Carlson slips in and out (passing a note to Dunne about possible evening plans).

I certainly begin to feel that in sitting here, in actually covering the event, I’ve missed the point. The chamber itself, even with its color – its spittoons and creaky desks, a gargantuan Teddy Kennedy, bigger than Henry Hyde – is a picture of monotony. Just because some sort of curse, or joke, or historical error forces a hundred senators to sit here every day doesn’t mean the news – or the information – is here.

R. W. Apple, the Times’ chief trial correspondent, writing the daily front-page dispatch with the special rubric “In the Chamber,” is not, and hasn’t been, in the chamber during the trial. (“So Apple is writing from the television?” I confirm with one of his Times colleagues. “More or less.” “More or less?” “All right, he’s writing from the television.”)

While this certainly seems like cheating (a war reporter staying out of harm’s way of the shelling; a congressional reporter staying out of harm’s way of the boredom), it is (like most cheating) much more efficient. C-Span, and the CNN Capitol location interviews, provide a distilled information feed. The fact is, the wonks assure me, the physical Congress has all but disappeared. Indeed, the closest Senators themselves most often get to the chamber is C-Span. Does it matter? When you’re here, on site, bound to your seat, the somnambulant rhythms of the proceeding surely dilute the pure information. Senate rules, however, say that the camera must focus only on the speaker, lending the speaker, on air, a dimension of authority, focus, and solemnity. In the chamber, the speaker is seldom so potent and clear. The certainty of the news reports would undoubtedly be less certain if reporters had to sit here.

The trial’s two stand-out moments – especially in contrast to last week’s procedural wrangling and partisan voting – have been the Bumpers and Mills presentations. Bumpers was sexy in his intimacy – the slowness of his voice, the ease of his body. Mills was sexy in the opposite way. She was unfamiliar; everything about her was surprising: She was young, thin, comely, black. Within the White House, Mills is known as a motormouth. But in this slow-moving chamber, the speed of her words translated into passion. While television rendered her earnest (even noble), here, in person, hearts raced.

In apparent violation of Senate rules forbidding electronic equipment of any sort in the chamber (I was stripped of all mine), Mills (symbolically or forgetfully?) wore a black beeper fastened fetchingly on her right hip.

Her beeper, along with the cumbersome and unreadable white-board charts, was a reminder that these proceedings, from an information point of view, are at a disadvantage.

A laptop or two might have helped cut though the morass.

Could the Republicans have changed history with PowerPoint?

The Republican managers certainly do not have the advantages of education, experience, or I.Q. to compete with the White House legal team. This is another thing that the television has flattened: the class differences between the House members and the president’s legal team (and also the Senate at large: “Look at Domenici talking to Rogan,” one of the wonks said. “Under no other circumstances would you ever see someone like Domenici talking to someone like Rogan.”)

It’s Yale Law School versus the bumpkins. Even if you believe the facts are on their side, it’s hard not to cringe at how the House managers handled the rhetorical side of the proposition. That point was rammed home when Bumpers took on Hyde’s American Legion rendition of history. That Bunker Hill crap might work in the House, Bumpers clearly indicated, but we’ve gotten to the Senate. One of the wonk reporters shared a rumor that the House Republicans had considered hiring “real” lawyers to make their case – a plan that was scuttled by the managers’ scramble for face time.

Even so, at sales meetings across the country, PowerPoint has aided many a challenged speaker. If the Republicans could have created animations of Betty Currie, and Vernon Jordan, and Revlon’s Ronald Perelman, which, with a push of the mouse, might have brought home the point … who knows … ?

The real story, the standing congressional reporters believe, is not in the chamber but in the deals and gambits and shifting allegiances among the 100 senators. “There’s no way you can stay on top of what’s happening,” says Alison Mitchell, the New York Times’ congressional correspondent. That’s why she, and virtually every other print reporter, spends a good part of the day watching CNN – you won’t find a desk in the print-press gallery that isn’t tuned in.

With cameras stationed on the Senate side under the Ohio Clock, in the Will Rogers Corridor, in the Radio and TV Gallery, on the Russell Balcony, and on the lawn (Charles Bierbauer perpetually at attention, rain or shine, in brown trench coat on the Capitol lawn is like a living statue to, well, Charles Bierbauer), CNN has become the main information conduit of the trial.

There is something almost unfair about the competitive balance. The five New York Times congressional reporters, with coats on their chairs, are crammed into a tight corner of the Senate press room, with prehistoric terminals (forget a T1, or a lan, we’re talking black screens with green type), glued to CNN. “CNN has replaced the wire services,” says the Times’ Eric Schmitt.

H. Michael Roselli, CNN’s senior producer on the Hill, is nonchalant about his role as the ultimate information broker and unfazed by larger questions about democratic process and who controls the news. It’s about creating a package, he says, about keeping viewers interested, about certain rhythms, balancing Democrat against Republican, senator against congressman, wide angles against talking heads, live camera feeds against tape. “It’s television,” says Roselli.

There’s a kibitzing period on thefloor before the session resumes after each break. “Two bucks conferring,” Dunne says, pointing to Jay Rockefeller and Teddy Kennedy, heads together, chuckling.

Dunne is always first on line to be led into the gallery. His diligence and his attention – his courtliness too – all seem out of another era. Dunne, taking notes in a diary with his name embossed in the leather, is covering the trial the old-fashioned way; everyone else is covering something … but not this.

The trial itself may have no real meaning. It is here, it is occurring – with 100 senators trapped like trainees – because no one has figured out how to get around it. It’s a process of going through the motions, with a foregone conclusion. But frankly, I like it. It’s something you don’t see every day. The pace, while excruciating, gives you time to look. The chamber itself, having fallen into disuse, works. The senators even seem to have reconciled themselves to paying attention.

And still, there’s Monica to come.

A further media note: There are no impeachment T-shirts. Not that I could find.


Virtual Reporting