In Prime Time, Two Versions of Impeachment for a Divided Nation

Michael M. Grynbaum

NEW YORK — For a glimpse at the country’s divided political reality, look no further than a pair of television studios on opposite sides of the Avenue of the Americas in Midtown Manhattan.

From her set inside MSNBC headquarters, Rachel Maddow opened her prime-time coverage of the Trump impeachment hearings by calling the first day’s testimony “a double-barreled problem for the president — triple-barreled, maybe.” President Donald Trump, she said, had been “caught doing something illegal” at the “direct expense of the country’s national interest.”

One block south, from a Fox News studio, Sean Hannity welcomed viewers by declaring “a great day for the United States, for the country, for the president — and a lousy day for the corrupt, do-nothing-for-three-years, radical, extreme, socialist Democrats and their top allies known as the media mob.”

These distinct visions — delivered simultaneously from skyscrapers roughly 1,000 feet apart — were beamed at the 9 p.m. hour into millions of U.S. living rooms. It was a striking reflection of today’s choose-your-own-news media environment and a far cry from the era when Americans experienced major events through the same television hearth.

Viewers are flocking to opinionated outlets with irreconcilable differences. Although every major TV station broadcast the hearings, Fox News and MSNBC were far and away the most popular networks for Americans to watch the opening round of public testimony this past week, outdrawing CNN and the Big Three networks of ABC, CBS and NBC, according to Nielsen.

On Wednesday, a pair of veteran foreign service officers testified that Trump had pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate his domestic political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. On Hannity’s show, right-wing radio pundit Mark Levin compared the officers to “two homeless guys.” A guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program said the men “looked like people who sat by themselves at recess.”

On MSNBC, host Chris Hayes praised the officers, telling viewers they had revealed “brand-new evidence of the president’s plot to extort Ukraine.”

“Today, the American people got a fuller picture of the corrupt abuse of power by the president of the United States,” Hayes said, around the time that Carlson was telling his audience that the testimony was “pointless and tiresome.” Carlson added, “It made you realize that Democrats really have no master plan for impeachment.”

Television played a crucial role in framing impressions of the nation’s last two impeachment dramas. The Watergate hearings of 1973, now viewed with nostalgia as a moment when Americans could more or less agree on facts, were broadcast in sober tones on PBS. (ABC, CBS and NBC rotated coverage to avoid losing daytime ad revenue.)

Bill Clinton’s impeachment and Senate trial, which focused on a sensational sex scandal, came at a time of expansion for 24-hour cable news. The circus boosted ratings for then-fledgling Fox News and MSNBC and made celebrities of feisty partisan commentators, including future Trump-era figures like Kellyanne Conway and Laura Ingraham.

Now comes Trump’s impeachment, at a moment of profound fractionalization in the news business.

Many viewers have come to prefer partisan media venues, and the divide extends beyond cable. An entire news pipeline — from message threads on Reddit to chatter on Twitter and partisan Facebook groups — allows Americans to consume information that confirms their own biases and beliefs.

And tribal allegiances to news outlets mean that any hint of heresy can provoke an outcry. When NBCNews.com published an analysis arguing that Wednesday’s impeachment hearing lacked “pizazz,” many liberals seized on the phrase, objecting to the notion of assessing impeachment as entertainment. Even Stephen Colbert weighed in, mocking the article on his CBS late-night show.

A similar backlash occurred Friday among conservatives during the testimony of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.

When Trump tweeted an attack on the ambassador while she spoke to lawmakers, Fox News anchor Bret Baier noted on the air that it might hurt the president’s case. Baier wrote on Twitter that the president’s message could be viewed as “witness tampering or intimidation — adding an article of impeachment real-time.”

Baier, chief political anchor at Fox News, works in the network’s news division, not its partisan commentary ranks. But his remark yielded a rash of frustration and disbelief among pro-Trump Fox viewers, who took it as a kind of betrayal.

Daytime viewers of Fox News and MSNBC on Friday would have encountered some overlap in the channels’ commentary.

MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace, who often criticizes Trump on her program, was a co-anchor of her channel’s coverage. On Fox News, viewers heard some tough words for Trump, too. Chris Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” host, said, “If you are not moved by the testimony of Marie Yovanovitch today, you don’t have a pulse.” And Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated Bill Clinton and a frequent guest on Fox News, criticized Trump’s tweet as showing “extraordinarily poor judgment.”

By Friday prime-time, though, Fox News was back to ardently defending the president. Carlson opened his show with an on-screen graphic reading, “Media Fawns Over Yovanovitch’s ‘Poise, Charisma.’”

Historians and media scholars said the current moment is in some ways a throwback to an era long before the rise of mass media, when partisan newspapers were the way Americans received their news.

Coverage of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, in 1868, was dominated by outlets with strident agendas; some papers were controlled outright by leaders of political parties.

“One of the things I find very amusing about the coverage today is when I hear about how divided the electorate is,” said Brenda Wineapple, a historian whose chronicle of the Johnson impeachment, “The Impeachers,” was published this spring. “It was equally divided, if not more so, in 1868.”

Wineapple said in an interview that contemporary coverage of Johnson was marked by character smears and disinformation intended to deceive the electorate. “All kinds of rumors and allegations that were largely unfounded,” she said. “There have been people staking out polarized sides for a very long time.”

In 1973, ABC said it received angry calls from viewers who opposed the network’s broadcast of the Watergate hearings. Among the objections: “You’re hurting our president,” “Watergate is being shoved down our throats,” and “It’s Democratic propaganda.”

Jon Meacham, the journalist and historian who recently helped write a book on the history of impeachment, said that, in a way, history had come full circle.

“The Johnson impeachment unfolded in a Wild West of partisan media,” Meacham said in an interview. “Nixon unfolded in a consensus era,” when media outlets were broadly in step. “The reaction to that consensus on the right helped build the institutions and pipelines that were beginning to operate under Clinton and are now at full throttle under Trump.

“Therefore, in a media sense, we’re all the way back to Johnson,” Meacham said. “You choose your reality by the paper to which you subscribe or the channel which you watch.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company