Why the media's coverage of impeachment would likely be a disaster
Last week, former special counsel Robert Mueller's congressional testimony confirmed once again that Donald Trump has engaged in serious wrongdoing, including likely obstruction of justice. It also raised the possibility that Trump could be charged with crimes after he leaves office. Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday also provided something of a preview for what possible impeachment hearings might look like, as Democrats in the House continue to weigh that option.
For Democrats, part of the allure of launching impeachment is the chance to use the public forum to educate Americans about the level of corruption and lawbreaking that surrounds the Trump White House. Pointing to how Watergate hearings helped turn the tide against President Richard Nixon in 1973 and 1974, impeachment advocates argue that the glare of the media spotlight could sway public opinion.
But I fear that might not be the case. With a D.C. press corps that has internalized Trump's view of reality TV politics, not to mention the influence of a billion-dollar conservative media industry set up to amplify GOP lies, the media's impeachment coverage, unlike during Watergate, would be disastrously shallow and lean heavily in favor of Republicans, just as the Mueller coverage did last week.
Note that I am not suggesting that the heavy-handed and unprofessional way the D.C. press would likely cover impeachment hearings is a reason that Democrats should not push forward on the Hill: It is not a reason to back down. But I am saying that the press will act as a major counterforce to Democrats if they opt for impeachment and try to tell the truth about Trump to the American people.
In other words, if impeachment happens, it will be Democrats versus Republicans plus the press. Last week's Mueller hearings made that painfully obvious, as journalists gleefully echoed GOP spin about what a supposed bust the event was.
The Mueller coverage represented part of a larger pattern of how the news media deals with high-profile congressional hearings. For three years under President Barack Obama, the media narrative was that Benghazi hearings could be problem for Obama and Democrats. Then, when they inevitably were not, the press shrugged and waited for the next GOP production to materialize. This while Republicans were generally credited for applying relentless political pressure on the Democratic president. (So savvy!)
That was the exact pattern during six years of the mindless Bill Clinton hearings in the ‘90s, which started way before his affair with Monica Lewinsky was discovered. Back then, almost never did the press turn its focus on the GOP and suggest that its busted Whitewater hearings were a political problem. Yet with the two Mueller hearings last week, the press did that at the speed of sound. Within hours of their conclusion, the hammer came down on Democrats as journalists followed Trump's lead and announced that the days events had been a "flop," and that he had emerged the clear winner.
This is exactly what the press would do with any possible impeachment proceedings. Rather than let the story play out and let Democrats unfold a compelling narrative, journalists posing as theater critics would be issuing nasty reviews, urging the production be shut down. That's what we saw last week.
"Lack of Electricity in Mueller Testimony Short-Circuits Impeachment," The New York Times concluded last week, suggesting that "electricity" (?) is the key to possibly removing a sitting president from office. It was one of many theater criticism-type dispatches the Times published in the wake of the hearings, as the paper over and over focused not on the substance—on Trump's possible lawbreaking—of Mueller's nearly seven hours of testimony, but on the so-called optics and on the entertainment value of the hearings. "The Blockbuster That Wasn’t: Mueller Disappoints the Democrats," blared another Times headline, comparing the hearings to a summer movie release.
That misinformed approach was everywhere last week. Impeachment “took a blow on Wednesday when former Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered muted and sometimes shaky testimony before two House panels," Politico announced, reading directly off Republican talking points. Separately, a Politico news story last week matter-of-factly referred to the hearings as a "flop," and insisted Democrats deemed the event a "disappointment," even though Politico couldn't actually find a single disappointed Democrat to quote.
Not only is that a superficial way to cover politics, but in the case of the Mueller hearings, the Times and others turned out to be dead wrong about the question of impeachment. Stressing that Mueller's testimony was a bore, news outlets rushed to suggest he had buried any chance of impeachment. Yet in the days following the Mueller hearings, more Democratic members of Congress came out in favor of impeachment (the tally now sits at more than 100), and Democratic leaders informed a judge that they needed access to grand jury testimony because they’re “investigating whether to recommend articles of impeachment” against the president. Blinded by GOP spin, and obsessed with optics, the press missed the week's big story: Mueller's hearings had upped the chances of impeachment happening.
At times, the Mueller hearing coverage seemed to be told exclusively through the prism of the GOP. Here, from late Wednesday afternoon, is a sample of Washington Post headlines updating the hearings:
- "Republican leaders take a victory lap in wake of testimony"
- "The reaction to Mueller’s testimony, outside the fundraiser in W.Va. where Trump is headed"
- “Trump declares it a ‘very good day,’ calls Mueller investigation a ‘witch hunt’”
- “RNC says ‘case closed’ after Mueller hearings”
Notice a trend?
Meanwhile, it was nearly impossible to find media coverage suggesting that the hearings had been a disappointment or failure for the GOP, whose members spent the entire day pestering Mueller about incoherent deep state conspiracy theories. Previously, Politico reported that GOP members would "lie in wait" for Mueller in hopes of exposing him as a fraud, which obviously never happened. But the press showed no interest scoring the Republican performance or grading it as a win or loss. Only the Democrats received a grade.
All of this, I fear, would apply to any impeachment coverage that might loom in the future.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.