In the matter of the public impeachment hearings starting Wednesday and going live on TV, it is important to be prepared. Specifically, be prepared for a nothing-burger.
This assertion shouldn’t startle anyone. Even the Democrats hoping to convince the American public that U.S. President Donald Trump and a gaggle of cronies pressured Ukraine to announce an investigation into former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden, in return for preauthorized military aid, know what’s on the line. As CNN’s Lauren Fox reported the other day, an anonymous senior Democrat told her, “The first hour of a hearing and the first hearing has got to be a blockbuster.”
The possibility of a TV blockbuster turning into a nothing-burger is very real. Televised hearings in Washington are nothing new. The TV theatre of it is familiar, but the TV dynamics have changed.
In 1973, the Senate Watergate hearings unfolded when there were three network TV channels, plus PBS, then in its infancy, and there were hundreds of newspapers with millions of readers. The three U.S. networks rotated live coverage and PBS rebroadcast each day’s complete proceedings in the evening for those unable to watch during the day. Part of the attraction was the array of colourful figures in the Nixon administration that viewers had only read about.
Tens of millions watched the evening coverage on PBS, anchored by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, who did almost no punditry or commentary and merely summarized what had happened and outlined who the players at the hearings were. Sometimes they interviewed experts on the U.S. government’s internal workings.
Yet the Watergate hearings were a monumental event in recent U.S. history. In part that was because, although it was live television, the story wrote itself. Democrats who were alleging that Richard Nixon and his team had acted nefariously were careful to build a case, step by step. The hearings opened with testimony from, and the questioning of, bit-players in the story, and moved up the chain of command to Nixon’s inner circle. It was gripping TV because it played out as a slow-burning drama moving ever closer and closer to the Oval Office.
The setting and the story told contrasts sharply with today’s U.S. political and media landscape. But it’s not just about the gap in time. Even the most recent televised impeachment hearing, aimed at impeaching Bill Clinton, also took place in a vastly different atmosphere.
For a start, the Clinton saga started in January, 1994, with an independent counsel investigating financial irregularities in the dealings of the Whitewater property company and the involvement of the Clintons, and their business partners. In August of that year, the independent counsel was replaced by the more combative and conservative Kenneth Starr. At the time Starr started work, Monica Lewinsky was still in college. Also, at that time Paula Jones had only just filed a sexual harassment suit against Clinton based on his alleged actions in 1991.
It would be several years before what started as a land-development entanglement exploded into a sex scandal. But when it exploded, it certainly meant fireworks. Just before Christmas, 1997, lawyers for Jones subpoenaed Lewinsky, hoping to prove a pattern of behaviour by Clinton. In an affidavit, Lewinsky denied an affair with Clinton, hoping to avoid testifying. But her friend Linda Tripp had taped their phone conversations and offered the tapes to Starr. Within months, there was a full-blown sex scandal and the public was hearing about the secret tapes, oral sex in the Oval Office and the porn magazine Penthouse was in court arguing its right to publish nude photos of Jones. By the time that impeachment hearings were on live TV, there was enough sensational detail to guarantee an audience hungry for more.
The Clinton saga was like a lurid, high-stakes soap-opera. New and sensational developments came out of the blue. It was water-cooler conversation. It was about a guy denying having sex with “that woman.” It was both lascivious content and relatable: the cheating husband and the intern, and all the lies woven around that.
What connects the Clinton impeachment hearings narrative to this week’s event is the crucial role of the internet. In January, 1998, the little-known conservative news aggregation site Drudge Report carried a report claiming that Newsweek had sat on a story about president Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky. That item kick-started a frenzy of coverage and it emboldened mainstream news outlets to cover the sex scandal. In The Washington Post, media columnist Howard Kurtz wondered whether “the furious pace of the coverage has all but shattered traditional media standards.”
It did. The internet was in its infancy, but the Clinton scandal established the Drudge Report as an influential outlet. Just as, ironically, the very sober PBS had been made to seem essential by the Watergate scandal. The Fox News Channel was also in its infancy, established in 1996, but only available in about 10 million homes and most of those homes were not in the major east or west coast markets.
The big live TV event that begins on Wednesday has nothing like the context that framed the Watergate and Clinton hearings. (The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, and another senior diplomat, George Kent, will appear first. The hearings will resume Friday with the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifying. All will be asked what they knew about Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s dealings with Ukraine.) Fox News will play a significant role. It already has its own narrative: Trump’s quid-pro-quo with Ukraine might have been mildly inappropriate, but it’s not at the level of impeachment. For good measure, Fox also takes the view that nobody really cares about the Ukraine scandal. Fox News’s Jesse Watters on Friday shouted: “No one can find Ukraine on a map!”
Each cable news outlet will construe the hearings in its own way, with its own biases and inclinations. Twitter will play a role, as it has since the start of the Trump presidency. Other social-media sites will undercut the relevancy of the live televised hearings with wild conspiracy theories floated and witnesses attacked. CNN’s Jake Tapper has already been the subject of a bizarre Twitter smear campaign alleging that he’s close friends with the lawyer representing the whistle-blower whose report brought the Ukraine scandal to light. Tapper says he’s never met the lawyer, let alone been friendly with the man. Meanwhile, regular CNN pundit Max Boot called Fox’s Sean Hannity the "de facto minister of propaganda” for the Trump administration in the matter of Ukraine.
It’s a fevered atmosphere, with the further demonizing of Trump, ahead of next year’s election, at the heart of it. The likelihood of an actual impeachment is remote. What those pushing for impeachment really want is to expose is Trump’s quid-pro-quo as a shakedown and outright bribery, and typical of his behaviour. And they want it on live TV to be convincing. Career civil servants will testify. Perhaps they have shocking revelations, and perhaps the public will shrug. After all, these hearings will be sliced and diced and not so much analyzed as they will be derided by Fox News and other Trump-supporting outlets.
That’s why blockbuster testimony is essential from the get-go. Those who wanted to feed on proof of Trump’s nefariousness expected their fill from the Mueller report and Robert Mueller’s testimony, and they got a nothing-burger. That TV drama amounted to dull content and anyone with high hopes for this one should remember that.
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