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!

The Internet: Nasty, Brutish And Short

When the internet ushered in an explosion of information in the mid to late 90s there were many — I among them — who believed humans would get smarter. What we didn’t realize then is that the opposite would eventually prove to be true.

The internet lures us into thinking with half a brain. Actually, with less than half a brain – and the half we’re using is the least thoughtful, most savage half. The culprit is the speed of connection and reaction. We are now living in a pinball culture, where the speed of play determines that we have to react by instinct. There is no time left for thoughtfulness.

Daniel Kahneman’s monumental book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” lays out the two loops we use for mental processing. There’s the fast loop, our instinctive response to situations, and there’s the slow loop, our thoughtful processing of reality.

Humans need both loops. This is especially true in the complexity of today’s world. The more complex our reality, the more we need the time to absorb and think about it.

 If we could only think fast, we’d all believe in capital punishment, extreme retribution and eye-for-eye retaliation. We would be disgusted and pissed off almost all the time. We would live in the Hobbesian State of Nature (from English philosopher Thomas Hobbes): The “natural condition of mankind” is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws, and no common power to restrain human nature. The state of nature is a “war of all against all,” in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in an incessant pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short.”

That is not the world I want to live in. I want a world of compassion, empathy and respect. But the better angels of our nature rely on thoughtfulness. They take time to come to their conclusions.

With its dense interconnectedness, the internet has created a culture of immediate reaction. We react without all the facts. We are disgusted and pissed off all the time. This is the era of “cancel” and “callout” culture. The court of public opinion is now less like an actual court and more like a school of sharks in a feeding frenzy.

We seem to think this is OK because for every post we see that makes us rage inside, we also see posts that make us gush and goo. Every hateful tweet we see is leavened with a link to a video that tugs at our heartstrings. We are quick to point out that, yes, there is the bad — but there is an equal amount of good. Either can go viral. Social media simply holds up a mirror that reflects the best and worst of us.

But that’s not really true. All these posts have one thing in common: They are digested too quickly to allow for thoughtfulness. Good or bad, happy or mad — we simply react and scroll down. FOMO continues to drive us forward to the next piece of emotionally charged clickbait. 

There’s a reason why social media is so addictive: All the content is aimed directly at our “Thinking Fast” hot buttons. And evolution has reinforced those hot buttons with generous discharges of neurocchemicals that act as emotional catalysts. Our brain online is a junkie jonesing for a fix of dopamine or noradrenaline or serotonin. We get our hit and move on.

Technology is hijacking our need to pause and reflect. Marshall McLuhan was right: The medium is the message and, in this case, the medium is one that is hardwired directly to the inner demons of our humanity.It took humans over five thousand years to become civilized. Ironically, one of our greatest achievements is dissembling that civilization faster than we think. Literally.

Why Elizabeth Warren Wants to Break Up Big Tech

Earlier this year, Democratic Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren posted an online missive in which she laid out her plans to break up big tech (notably Amazon, Google and Facebook). In it, she noted:

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

We, here in the west, are big believers in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. We inherently believe that markets will self-regulate and eventually balance themselves. We are loath to involve government in the running of a free market.

In introducing the concept of the Invisible Hand, Smith speculated that,  

“[The rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.”

In short, a rising tide raises all boats. But there is a dicey little dilemma buried in the midst of the Invisible Hand Premise – summed up most succinctly by the fictitious Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “Greed is Good.”

More eloquently, economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman explained it like this:

“The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.” 

But here’s the thing. Up until very recently, the concept of the Invisible Hand dealt only with physical goods. It was all about maximizing tangible resources and distributing them to the greatest number of people in the most efficient way possible.

The difference now is that we’re not just talking about toasters or running shoes. Physical things are not the stock in trade of Facebook or Google. They deal in information, feelings, emotions, beliefs and desires. We are not talking about hardware any longer, we are talking about the very operating system of our society. The thing that guides the Invisible Hand is no longer consumption, it’s influence. And, in that case, we have to wonder if we’re willing to trust our future to the conscience of a corporation?

For this reason, I suspect Warren might be right. All the past arguments for keeping government out of business were all based on a physical market. When we shift that to a market that peddles influence, those arguments are flipped on their head. Milton Friedman himself said , “It (the corporation) only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.” Let’s shift that to today’s world and apply it to a corporation like Facebook – “It only cares whether they can produce something that captures your attention.” To expect anything else from a corporation that peddles persuasion is to expect too much.

The problem with Warren’s argument is that she is still using the language of a market that dealt with consumable products. She wants to break up a monopoly that is limiting competition. And she is targeting that message to an audience that generally believes that big government and free markets don’t mix.

The much, much bigger issue here is that even if you believe in the efficacy of the Invisible Hand, as described by all believers from Smith to Friedman, you also have to believe that the single purpose of a corporation that relies on selling persuasion will be to influence even more people more effectively. None of most fervent evangelists of the Invisible Hand ever argued that corporations have a conscience. They simply stated that the interests of a profit driven company and an audience intent on consumption were typically aligned.

We’re now playing a different game with significantly different rules.

Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.

The Inevitability of the Pendulum Effect

In the real world, things never go in straight lines or predictable curves. The things we call trends are actually a saw tooth profile of change, reaction and upheaval. If you trace the path, you’ll see evidence of the Law of the Pendulum.

In the physical world, the Law is defined as: “the movement in one direction that causes an equal movement in a different direction.

In the world of human behavior, it’s defined as: “the theory holding that trends in culture, politics, etc., tend to swing back and forth between opposite extremes.

Politically and socially, we’re in the middle of a swing to the right. But this will be countered inevitably with a swing to the left. We could call it Newton’s Third Law of Social Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Except that’s not exactly true. If it were, the swings would cancel each other out and we’d end in the same place we started from. And we know that’s not the case. Let me give you one example that struck me recently.

This past week, I visited a local branch of my bank. The entire staff were wearing Pride T-shirts in support of their employer’s corporate sponsorship of Pride Week. That is not really a cause for surprise in our world of 2019. No one batted an eye. But I couldn’t help thinking that it’s parsecs removed from the world I grew up in, in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

I won’t jump into the debate of the authenticity of corporate political correctness, but there’s no denying that when it comes to sexual preference, the world is a more tolerant place than it was 50 years ago. The pendulum has swung back and forth, but the net effect has been towards – to use Steven Pinker’s term – the better angels of our nature.

When talking about the Pendulum Effect, we also have to keep an eye on Overton’s Window. This was something I talked about in a previous column some time ago. Overton’s window defines the frame of what the majority of us – as a society – find acceptable. As the pendulum swings back and forth between extremes, somewhere in the middle is a collective view that most of us can live with. But Overton’s window is always moving. And I believe that the window today frames a view of a more tolerant, more empathetic world than the world of 50 years ago – or almost any time in our past. That’s true every day. Lately, it might not even be true most days. But this is probably a temporary thing. The pendulum will swing back eventually, and we’ll be in a better place.

My question is: why? Why – when we even out the swings – are we becoming better people? So far, this column has little to do with media, digital or otherwise. But I think the variable here is information. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, once said “Information wants to be free.” But I think information also wants to set us free – free from the limitations of our gene bound prejudice and pettiness. Where ever you find the pendulum swinging backwards, you’ll find a dearth of information. We need information to be thoughtful. And we need thoughtfulness to create a more just, more tolerant, more empathetic society.

We – in our industry – deal with information as our stock in trade. It is our job to ensure that information spreads as far as possible. It’s the one thing that will ensure that the pendulum swings in the right direction. Eventually. 

Personal Endeavour in the Age of Instant Judgement

No one likes to be judged — not even gymnasts and figure skaters. But at least in those sports, the judges supposedly know what it is they’re judging. So, in the spirit of instant feedback, let me rephrase: No one likes to be judged by a peanut gallery*. Or, to use a more era appropriate moniker, by a troll’s chorus.

Because of this, I feel sorry for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners of “Game of Thrones.” Those poor bastards couldn’t be any more doomed if they had been invited to a wedding of the red variety.

At least they were aware of their fate. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, they disclosed their plans for the airing of the final episode. “We’ll in an undisclosed location, turning off our phones and opening various bottles,” Weiss admitted. “At some point, if and when it’s safe to come out again, somebody like [HBO’s ‘GOT’ publicist] will give us a breakdown of what was out there without us having to actually experience it.” Added Benioff: “I plan to be very drunk and very far from the internet.”

Like it or not, we now live in an era of instant judgement, from everyone. It’s the evil twin of social virality. It means we have to grow thicker skins than your average full-grown dragon**. And because I’m obsessively fixated on unintended consequences, this got me to thinking. How might all this judgement impact our motivation to do stuff?

First of all, let’s look at the good that comes from this social media froth kicked up by fervent fans. There is a sense of ownership and emotional investment in shows like “Game of Thrones” that’s reached a pitch never seen before — and I truly believe we’re getting better TV because of it.

If you look at any of the lists of the best TV shows of all time, they are decidedly back-end loaded. “Game of Thrones,” even at its worst, is better than almost any television of the ’80s or ’90s. And it’s not only because of the advances in special effects and CGI wizardry. There is a plethora of thoughtful, exquisitely scripted and superbly acted shows that have nary an enchantress, dragon or apocalypse of the walking dead in sight. There is no CGI in “Better Call Saul,” “Master of None” or “Atlanta.”

But what about the dark side of social fandom?

I suspect instant judgement might make it harder for certain people to actually do anything that ends up in the public arena. All types of personal endeavors require failure and subsequent growth as an ingredient for success. And fans are getting less and less tolerant of failure. That makes the entry stakes pretty high for anyone producing output that is going to be out there, available for anyone to pass judgement on.

We might get self-selection bias in arenas like the arts, politics and sports. Those adverse to criticism that cuts too deep will avoid making themselves vulnerable. Or — upon first encountering negative feedback — they may just throw in the towel and opt for something less public.

The contributors to our culture may just become hard-nosed and impervious to outside opinion — kind of like Cersei Lannister. Or, even worse, they may be so worried about what fans think that they oscillate trying to keep all factions happy. That would be the Jon Snows of the world.

Either way, we lose the contributions of those with fragile egos and vulnerable hearts. If we applied that same filter retroactively to our historic collective culture, we’d lose most of what we now treasure.

In the end, perhaps David Benioff got it right. Just be “very drunk and very far from the internet.”

* Irrelevant Fact #1: The term peanut gallery comes from vaudeville, where the least expensive seats were occupied by the rowdiest members of the audience. The cheapest snack was peanuts, which the audience would throw at the performers.

** Irrelevant Fact #2: Dragons have thick skin because they don’t shed their skins. It just keeps getting thicker and more armor-like. The older the dragon, the thicker the skin.

The Gap Between People and Platforms

I read with interest fellow Spinner Dave Morgan’s column about how software is destroying advertising agencies, but not the need for them. I do want to chime in on what’s happening in advertising, but I need a little more time to think about it.

What did catch my eye was a comment at the end by Harvard Business School professor Alvin Silk: “You can eliminate the middleman, but not his/her function.”

I think Dave and Alvin have put their collective thumbs on something that extends beyond our industry: the growing gap between people and platforms. I’ll use my current industry as an example – travel. It’s something we all do so we can all relate to it.

Platforms and software have definitely eaten this industry. In terms of travel destination planning, the 800-pound Gorilla is TripAdvisor. It’s impossible to overstate its importance to operators and business owners.  TripAdvisor almost single-handedly ushered in an era of do-it-yourself travel planning. For any destination in the world, we can now find the restaurants, accommodations, tours and attractions that are the favorites of other travellers. It allows us to both discover and filter while planning our next trip, something that was impossible 20 years ago, before TripAdvisor came along.

But for all its benefits, TripAdvisor also leaves some gaps.

The biggest gap in travel is what I’ve heard called the “Other Five.” I live in Canada’s wine country (yes, there is such a thing). Visitors to our valley – the Okanagan – generally come with 5 wineries they have planned to visit. The chances are very good that those wineries were selected with the help of TripAdvisor. But while they’re visiting, they also visit the “other five” – 5 wineries they discovered once they got to the destination. These discoveries depend on more traditional means – either word of mouth or sheer serendipity. And it’s often one of these “other five” that provide the truly memorable and authentic experiences.

That’s the problem with platforms like TripAdvisor, which are based on general popularity and algorithms. Technically, platforms should help you discover the long tail, but they don’t. Everything automatically defaults to the head of the curve. It’s the Matthew Effect applied to travel – advantage accumulates to those already blessed. We all want to see the same things – up to a point.

But then we want to explore the “other five” and that’s where we find the gap between platforms and people. We have been trained by Google not to look beyond the first page of online results. It’s actually worse than that. We don’t typically scan beyond the top five. But – by the very nature of ratings-based algorithms – that is always where you’ll find the “other five.” They languish in the middle of the results, sometimes taking years to bump up even a few spots. It’s why there’s still a market – and a rapidly expanding one at that – for a tour guided by an actual human. Humans can think beyond an algorithm, asking questions about what you like and pulling from their own experience to make very targeted and empathetic suggestions.

The problem with platforms is their preoccupation with scale. They feel they have to be all things to all people. I’ll call it Unicornitis – the obsession with gaining a massive valuation. They approach every potential market focused on how many users they can capture. By doing so, they have to target the lowest common denominator. The web thrives on scale and popularity; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Yes, there are niche players out there, but they’re very hard to find. They are the “other five” of the Internet, sitting on the third page of Google results.

This has almost nothing to do with advertising, but I think it’s the same phenomenon at work. As we rely more on software, we gain a false confidence that it replaces human-powered expertise. It doesn’t. And a lot of things can slip through the gap that’s created.