Guest Opinion: The two big flaws of the media's impeachment coverage - and what went right
In a bad-faith environment, traditional approaches can obscure, not illuminate, the facts.
The most telling moment of how the media covered impeachment may have come, oddly enough, on Fox News.
Todd Piro of "Fox & Friends" - President Donald Trump's most reliable cheerleading squad - was interviewing residents of Battle Creek, Michigan, the morning after the House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment.
He stuck his microphone in front of a middle-aged white woman identified as Carol.
Would the impeachment hurt or help the president in the 2020 election, Piro inquired?
She was succinct: "I think it'll help him among people who don't care about facts."
Piro mustered a quick "all right" and moved on.
Carol, though, in a dozen words, had put her finger on something: Not everybody seems focused on the facts. And sadly, some of those who aren't are members of the mainstream media.
Six weeks ago -- before Marie Yovanovitch's stunning testimony, before Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's appalling statement that he would work hand in hand with the White House on a Senate trial strategy, before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "don't you dare" glare at her own members -- I urged the news media to rise to the most difficult challenge of the Trump era so far.
Their test was to cover the impeachment proceedings without getting mired in the usual traps: false equivalence; distraction by presidential stunt; rampant speculation; the use of squishy language; and what I called Barr-Letter Syndrome, a reference to the way the mainstream press allowed Attorney General William Barr last spring to mischaracterize the findings of the Mueller report.
Now that Trump has been impeached, it's not possible to say that the mainstream media has earned anything close to an A.
Nor did they flunk out. Here's a look.
-- Equating the unequal
In an unceasing effort to be seen as neutral, journalists time after time fell into the trap of presenting facts and lies as roughly equivalent and then blaming political tribalism for not seeming to know the difference.
"Too much coverage seems to have got stuck in a feedback loop," wrote Jon Allsop in Columbia Journalism Review. "We're telling the public that politicians aren't budging from their partisan siloes, and vice versa, with the facts of what Trump actually did getting lost somewhere in the cycle. The cult of 'both sides' is integral to this dynamic, and it's serving the impeachment story poorly."
Other critics, including the Atlantic's James Fallows, NYU's Jay Rosen and Dan Froomkin of Press Watch, among others, pointed particularly at The New York Times.
However, the problem is broader and deeper. Watch the broadcast evening news for a couple of nights in a row and, to varying degrees, you'll see it in action: The Democrats said this; the Republicans said that; we don't know - it's so tribal! - so you decide.
-- The "pizzazz" and "polarization" problems
The first hearings, featuring State Department officials Bill Taylor and George Kent, failed to provide adequate thrills for some, despite their helpfulness in establishing that Trump had strong-armed Ukraine for political favors.
Some news organizations seemed to join with Trump in dubbing them dull - a "#snoozefest" as his son Eric saw it.
NBC News tweeted that the first hearings lacked "pizzazz," and though this was mockable enough to create an internet meme, it did speak to a serious issue: the expectation that every major news event should offer drama in the style of a reality TV show.
Author Jennifer Weiner warned in a Times opinion piece: "If we keep insisting that impeachment has to entertain us, we're going to channel-surf our way right out of our democracy."
When that excitement level isn't met, the media often steps in to provide it. That takes the form of dramatizing the nation's polarization, compete with laments about "divided America." But, as lawyer and commenter David A. Love put it, that's both accurate and a flawed lens: "When part of the nation supports authoritarianism . . . I'd hope there's some division. It's not like we're arguing over what we're having for dinner."
-- What went right
For Americans who were truly interested and willing to do some of the work of being informed, the facts underlying impeachment - and plenty of opinions - were readily available. They might have had to do some comparing and contrasting of news outlets and varying views, and to pay careful attention to the hearings themselves.
That was fully possible.
The broadcast networks rightly abandoned a great deal of their regular programming to air day after day of hearings. CBS Evening News, which recently moved to Washington from New York, gave its full 30-minute broadcast on Wednesday to impeachment coverage.
The four national newspapers gave the hearings voluminous coverage for weeks - and their editorial boards eventually all wrote in support or opposition. The Washington Post, USA Today and The New York Times all made strong cases for impeachment. By contrast, the Wall Street Journal, whose board has steadily opposed impeachment, took a swipe at the "impeachment press" and went further: "Based on the House evidence, Senators are justified in voting to acquit without hearing anyone."
Coverage aplenty. Opinions unending.
As for plain old facts -- like the ones mentioned by Carol in Battle Creek?
You certainly could find them amid the lush forest of words and views, but you might have to cut through a lot of brush first.