Forget the optics; impeachment hearings aren’t supposed to be entertaining
A focus on entertainment over information got us to this point
On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee held the first public hearings in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Despite the importance of the hearing and the revelations its participants offered, some in mainstream media focused on its optics, calling it “dull” and saying it “felt more like the dress rehearsal” than “a hit Broadway musical.”
Over a span of more than five hours on Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent and acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor fielded questions about Trump’s role in delaying congressionally appropriated foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma and Hunter Biden, its former board member and the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
One of the new revelations to come out of the testimony was news that a member of Taylor’s staff had overheard Trump asking Trump ally and U.S. Ambassador to European Union Gordon Sondland about “investigations” and that Sondland had told Trump that the Ukrainians “were ready to move forward.” That damning news, and the fact that this is the first time in more than two decades that a U.S. president has been at serious risk of impeachment, is about as compelling as congressional hearings get.
Reuters called the hearing “consequential, but dull” and NBC reported that it “lacked the pizazz necessary to capture public attention.”
Even the most action-packed Hollywood blockbuster would be hard-pressed to keep the audience engaged with a run time of more than five hours, and yet that seemed to be the impossible standard set by the seasoned journalists at these mainstream outlets.
“Democratic lawmakers tried their hand at reality television with mixed results on Wednesday as they presented arguments to the American public for the impeachment of a former star of the genre, Donald Trump,” wrote Patricia Zengerle and former White House Correspondents Association President Jeff Mason at Reuters.
NBC’s Jonathan Allen wrote that the hearing “felt more like the dress rehearsal for a serious one-act play than the opening night of a hit Broadway musical.”
On Twitter, Allen defended his article, writing, “The primary purpose of these hearings is persuasion. Part of that is the presentation.” He later tweeted, I’m very much in the camp that believes media generally pay too little attention to the meat and too much to the sizzle in hearings because it’s easier,” which is a particularly odd defense of a piece focused largely on “the pizazz.”
In recent years, the obsession with optics over substance has consumed the U.S. political press.
In July, NBC’s Chuck Todd called special counsel Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony a “disaster” on “optics,” saying, “In no movie would the best actor, the lead person here, have the fewest words spoken.” He also said that Mueller “has no interest in helping to provide color [or] context and that does, I think, take away some drama.” CNN’s Chris Cilliza bemoaned that Mueller didn’t come across as “a straight-out-of-central-casting prosecutor.” It didn’t seem to matter that Mueller testified that the Trump campaign welcomed and encouraged Russian interference in the 2016 election or that the campaign lied in an effort to cover it up. What mattered in the eyes of Todd, Cillizza, and several others was that it didn’t make for entertaining television.
Though Cillizza and Todd are two of the more consistently optics-enamored people in media, they’re hardly alone.
The past presidential campaign was filled with appearance-obsessed moments. During a September 2016 episode of NBC’s Today, Savannah Guthrie and her then-co-host Matt Lauer gushed over the optics of Trump’s visit to Mexico. Though Trump’s primary policy talking point that Mexico would pay for his proposed border wall was rebutted by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Lauer focused on appearances, praising Trump for being “toned down” and not engaging in any “outrageous rhetoric” during the trip. Similarly, Guthrie credited him for having “a dignified meeting with a foreign leader.” On CNN, Rebecca Berg said, “His message sounded more measured, more presidential, less tough, and less argumentative, which is where he needed to go.” The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty called this “a big win” for Trump, saying he was “enhancing [his] stature by standing next to a foreign leader and laying out his terms.” This praise, it bears repeating, was for an event where a foreign leader outright told Trump that one of his biggest campaign promises was a fantasy.
According to a report published by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, just 10% of 2016 coverage was devoted to policy issues. Horse-race coverage took up 42% of the conversation, with controversies making up 17%. “Although candidates in their stump speeches focus on the policies they would pursue as president,” read the Harvard report, “their stands do not receive close attention from journalists.” In other words, to borrow a term from NBC, policy lacks “pizazz.” From the report:
Policies lack the novelty that journalists seek in their stories. A new development may thrust a new issue into the campaign, but policy problems are typically longstanding. If they came and went overnight, they would not be problems. Thus it is that when a candidate first announces a policy stand, it makes news. Later on, it’s old news and likely to make headlines only if it has a new wrinkle.
To journalists, the real issues of presidential politics are not the candidates’ policy commitments but instead the controversies that ensnare them.
Faced with a decision between whether to inform or entertain, the press often chooses the latter.
In a 2018 study on the topic of misinformation, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America, authors Dietram Scheufele and Nicole Krause reflected on the role of the press and the conflicting motivations underlying editorial decisions. They noted that throughout the 20th century, journalism underwent a number of transformations as the result of changing technology and economic conditions, shifting to relying increasingly on advertising revenue. From the study (citations removed):
To start, it is worth noting that American media have not always striven for “objectivity.” Early print media delivered unabashedly slanted and misleading information during the “party press” era of the early 19th century, “when advertising and subscriptions brought in little revenue to many newspapers, [and] political support was invaluable,” to the point where “editors frowned on impartiality.” Although US newspapers eventually committed themselves to “the truth,” this development was not driven exclusively by normative democratic considerations, but likely also by the rise of printing presses and by shifting entrepreneurial and political activity that encouraged support for the “objectivity” of market logic and advertiser-supported papers. Since then, America’s self-described “independent” or “objective” presses have relied more and more heavily on advertiser funding over the course of the 20th century, and this trend has intensified as paid readership has declined.
The paper went on to quote a New York Times article about Axios co-founder Jim VandeHei to highlight the role capitalism plays in modern journalism: “Survival … depends on giving readers what they really want, how they want it, when they want it, and on not spending too much money producing what they don’t want.”
A revenue-centric approach to journalism that focuses on providing audiences with the equivalent of reality TV in article form is not sustainable if there’s hope of restoring trust in the press and fulfilling the goal of keeping the public informed. Scheufele and Krause pointed to this as a driver of political polarization as it creates “a fractioning of the media that rewards political extremism.” What’s most profitable will rarely be what’s most informative.
Their analysis aside, it’s easy to see how the rise of Donald Trump, a real-life reality TV star, is a boon to certain media outlets. On substance, he may be a disaster; on optics, he makes for good TV. As disgraced former CBS Chairman Les Moonves said in 2016, “[Trump’s candidacy] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He was also quoted saying, “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” and, “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” A 2017 New York Times Magazine profile of CNN head Jeff Zucker noted that Zucker had suggested incorporating elements of ESPN’s combative-style programming into CNN’s election coverage.
Trump is a dream for the optics-minded. While catering coverage to fit his reality TV mindset might be profitable now, the drift away from information and toward entertainment comes with a cost of its own, with a misinformed public oblivious to the world around them. This doesn’t bode well for the 2020 election, and there’s no telling where we will be 10 or 20 years from now. Journalists who insist on obsessing over appearances and entertainment, on “giving readers what they really want” instead of what they need, are only making matters worse.