Trump’s Impeachment: The Biggest Media Showdown of All Time?

Note: A shorter version of this ran in MediaPost where it was edited for length. This is the full version as I originally wrote it. GH

In my lifetime, the articles of Impeachment of have been prepared to go to the House of Representatives twice: once for Richard Nixon in 1974 and once for Bill Clinton in 1998. As this week begins, it looks like we’re heading for number three with Donald Trump. I thought it might be interesting to look these impeachment proceedings in the context of the media landscape. As I started my research, I realized this actually shows the dramatic shifts both in our media and in the culture of our ideologies. It’s worth taking a few minutes to examine them.

First, a little historical housekeeping. Two presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Nixon resigned before the articles got to the House for voting. Because I’m looking at impeachment in the context of media, we won’t spend too much time on Johnson, but we’ll still look at it for the history of a Republic Divided.

Impeachment tends to crop up when there is a deep ideological divide in the country. The rifts naturally extend to Washington and its political climate. What is fascinating is to see how these divides have been reflected in the media landscape as it has evolved.

Andrew Johnson, 1868

First of all, to provide a somewhat objective baseline to begin with, let’s begin with a quick assessment of each impeachment case using two criteria from David Greenberg, a professor of history from Rutgers, author and a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. First, was Impeachment and conviction justified? And secondly, was impeachment and conviction possible? Remember, no presidential impeachment case has won the vote in both houses, leading to the removal of a president.

With Andrew Johnson, Greenberg’s answer to those two questions was, “Justified? Probably not.” and “Possible? Most definitely.” Johnson survived the senate impeachment debate by a single vote.

The Impeachment of Johnson was a direct result of differing opinions over reconstruction after the civil war. A Democrat, Johnson ran headlong into resistance from a Republican controlled Congress and Senate. Although the odds were stacked against him, 10 Republicans broke party ranks and voted against impeachment in the senate, which fell one vote below the required two-thirds majority.

Richard Nixon, 1974

According to David Greenberg, Nixon’s impeachment was both justified and possible. Tricky Dick was heading for almost certain impeachment when he resigned on August 9, 1974.

The U.S. in 1974 was deeply divided ideologically but this rift did not extend to the media. The US media landscape was relatively monolithic in the 70’s, dominated by national newspapers and the three big television networks. Media coverage of the Watergate scandal followed the lead of one of those national papers – the Washington Post – and the now mythic reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. With a few exceptions, this media bloc definitely leaned left in its political views.

It’s also important to note the timeline of the Watergate revelations. Impeachment proceedings didn’t even begin until the Senate investigation was over a year old. By that time, there was substantial evidence pointing to both initial crimes and subsequent cover ups. The case was so damning – culminating in the release of the famous “smoking gun” tape – that even Republican support for Nixon quickly evaporated. We also have to remember that left-leaning media outlets had all the time in the world to erode public support for the president. This is not to condemn the journalism. It’s just acknowledging the media realities of the time.

The “Watergate Effect” would make its mark on national journalism for the next two decades. Suddenly, there was a flood of bright, idealistic (and yes – primarily left leaning) young people choosing journalism as a career. America’s right became increasingly frustrated with a media complex they saw as being dangerously biased to the left. One of the most vocal was Nixon’s own Executive Producer, a twenty-something named Roger Ailes.

Bill Clinton, 1998

This brings us to the Clinton Impeachment case, launched by an extra-marital affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. According to David Greenberg’s assessment, this impeachment was neither justified nor possible.

What is interesting about the Clinton case is how it marks the emergence of a right-wing media voice. The impeachment itself was largely a vendetta against the Clintons driven by Pentagon employee Linda Tripp and prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Tripp secretly recorded her conversations with Lewinsky in which she acknowledged the affair with Clinton. Lewinsky met Tripp after she had been reassigned to the Pentagon by White House aides hoping to avoid a scandal. Tripp then took the recordings to Newsweek hoping they would go public immediately. Given the implications of the story, Newsweek elected to sit on the story to give them the chance to do some further verification. Tripp was frustrated and had a book agent walk the tapes over to the Drudge Report, a fledgling Right-Wing story aggregator with a subscriber email list. They immediately published, causing a flustered mainstream media to follow suit.

Almost a year after the affair became public, Impeachment proceedings began. By this time, something called “Clinton Fatigue” had set in. Although the public was initially titillated by the salacious details, as the story dragged on, we all were struck with a collective and distasteful ennui. One got the sense that mainstream media were hoping the whole thing would eventually just go away. Eventually it did, after Clinton was acquitted in the Senate by all the Democrats and a handful of Republicans.

What Clinton’s impeachment did do was give a voice to the Right-Wing media which found a home in the explosion of cable channels and the very first online news sites. That same Roger Ailes was granted the helm of Fox News by Rupert Murdoch in 1996. The Conservatives were able to outflank the established media machine by laying claim to the emerging media platforms. This was media with a difference. Although the left-wing bias of mainstream media was generally acknowledged by most, it was largely an unspoken truth. Most journalists professed to be resolutely neutral and unbiased. The Right-Wing media was not so subtle. Their role was to counteract what they felt was a leftist spin machine.

The Clinton Impeachment also drove another wedge into the right-left split that has widened ever since. The staffers on Kenneth Starr’s prosecution team included current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and recently resigned Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Also, an ex-investment banker by the name of Steve Bannon was thinking he might give entertainment and media a shot.

Donald Trump, 2019

So, what do we have to look forward to? As we seem to be barreling towards impeachment, how will the story play out in today’s media and political landscape?

Professor David Greenberg is quick to point out that these are uncharted waters. It makes little sense to look for historical precedent, because this impeachment will be unlike anything we have seen before. For what it’s worth, he says the Impeachment of Donald Trump is justified, but is highly unlikely to be successful, given that the Senate is controlled by a seemingly uncrackable Republican majority.

But here are the wild cards that we in the media should be watching:

 1) the speed at which this is playing out is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We are only one week into this.

2) We have never had a President – or a White House – like this.

3) We have never had a media landscape like this. There is a very vocal Right-Wing Media Machine that has proven to be every bit as effective as the mainstream media.

4) The way we consume – and interact – with media is light years removed from two decades ago. This shift has been so massive that we are still grappling with understanding it.

5) The general public has never been networked the way we are now. We have seen the fallout from network effects both in the 2016 US Election and the UK’s Brexit vote. What part will the network play in an Impeachment?

Buckle up!

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