We’re watching the same impeachment hearings, but seeing vastly different TV shows

Even as reporters stick to substance, some viewers are only seeking entertainment value from the hearings

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 16, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

“Are we watching the same show?” Let me tell you, critics love this timeworn retort from readers or other media types who disagree with something they’ve said or written about a favorite episode or series.

Opinions are singular and can be based on observation, structural minutiae, or simple gut feeling. They’re neither right nor wrong, unless some element of that opinion is related to a false premise. Or, and this seems to be more likely to be the case now than ever, unless the person declaring that your opinion is incorrect – not debatable, simply wrong – is utterly convinced they, themselves, are right. Nothing can persuade them otherwise.

And anyone who holds a different view from theirs is wrong, misguided, ill-informed, stupid, dead to them. They believe people of the opposing view could not possibly understand what the show’s point is, what it is actually signaling, its true weight and meaning, how wrongly you have judged it. We can all watch the same program and come away with starkly different takes on what we saw.

Last week the program in question was the public testimony portion of the Congressional impeachment inquiry, held by the House Intelligence Committee.

Two episodes have aired thus far, beginning with Wednesday’s special guest stars William Taylor, acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, and continuing on Friday with testimony from career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Ukraine.

Depending on who your ask, the testimony so far has been either “very damaging” to the president or “the worst show on earth.”  It was “substantive, but it wasn't dramatic.”

The views expressed in that first sentence are courtesy of the two conflicting faces of Fox news, represented by Chris Wallace (“very damaging ) and Sean Hannity (the "worst show" part).

The opinion in the second is the assessment of an analysis posted on NBCNews.com written by Jonathan Allen, a Washington-based national political reporter.

“There's time for Democrats to tell a more compelling version of the story,” Allen writes, “keeping in mind that the attention span of most Americans doesn't match that of most C-SPAN viewers.”

Reuters, meanwhile, called Wednesday’s hearings “consequential, but dull”: “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.”

Congressional Democrats are fleshing out a plotline here; that much is true. If one were to write Wednesday’s logline, your basic TV guide summary, it would characterize the episodic arc by mentioning implications of Trump attempting to strong-arm Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, the leader of an Eastern European country in need of our military support, into doing his bidding, thereby placing his political self-interests above that of our national security.

Meanwhile, Friday’s logline is the story of the “chilling effect” Trump’s actions to remove Yovanovitch and other diplomats might have on the state department in addition to more detailed explanations as to why ensuring the safety of Ukraine is essential to protecting America’s interests.

These are conversations that inform the adrenalized action on shows like “Homeland” or “Jack Ryan.” Except, as many spies and a fair share of spy dramas will tell you, the work itself is rarely explosive and exciting as TV and film make it seem. The bulk of it involves the kind of diplomacy Yovanovitch and Taylor are tasked to do. You want to understand how geopolitics works and why it’s is such a crucial and potentially risky business? Watch this show. The dramatic accuracy and realism is second to none.

But this is one view. Another one that was very popular on right-wing Twitter writes all of it off as boring or illegitimate. Trump made an effort to spice things up on Friday by injecting himself into Yovanovitch’s testimony by smearing her character in a tweet just as she was testifying.

It was not enough that, as she told lawmakers, the color drained from her face when she read that Trump told the Ukrainian president in a July phone call that “she’s going to go through some things.” What things? Never mind. They change the channel.

Had that happened, the viewer would have missed Trump putting Yovanovitch  through yet another one of those things live on Friday, as Committee Chairman Adam Schiff read said tweets to her and characterized it as witness intimidation. It was a real “Law & Order: SVU” kind of moment, as  Fox’s Bret Baier explains that it added, “essentially, an article of impeachment real-time as this hearing is going on."

So: there's some courtroom drama tension for you. That should wake you up.

This glitch of wildly different interpretations in television broadcasts is nothing new. In fact, “How I Met Your Mother”viewers may recall an episode in which the ensemble's breakout character Barney Stinson revealed that he sees “The Karate Kid” as “the story of a hopeful, young karate enthusiast whose dreams and moxie take him all the way to the All Valley Karate Championship. Of course, sadly, he loses in the final round to that nerd kid. But he learns an important lesson about gracefully accepting defeat.”

He’s talking about the movie’s villain, Johnny Lawrence. Barney goes on to profess that he also roots for The Terminator and “Die Hard“ terrorist Hans Gruber. “Charming international bandit. In the end, he dies hard. He's the title character!” This is cute and funny, but it’s also a scripted comedy set in a New York and filmed on a soundstage in Los Angeles. The laughter is a track. Nothing about it is real.

This side effect of marinating in so much entertainment, so many false simulacra of reality and how the world should be, could only be accentuated by a president who insists on governing as if he is the star of a show, and is surrounded by members of his party eager to play the supporting cast. We know this, and in a matter as important as covering an impeachment inquiry, the fourth-ever such event in our country’s history, it is of vital importance that journalists not only see through it but ignore it entirely and insistently drill down on substance, substance, substance.

Honestly I’m shocked that more news outlets didn’t fall into the sports-style coverage trap on Wednesday and Friday. To the credit of most cable news reporters and, to a degree, Baier and Wallace, the media more or less fulfilled their role of listing the details and explaining what they do and could mean to this very serious process.

There was roundtable debate on how well the day served one side or the other because that is, in essence, what cable news has evolved into. But as I flipped through the channels the substance of what was said was on the table – save for Fox, which did its duty to blare the “hearsay” side of the argument.

This is nothing compared to Fox News’ prime-time block, which might as well be beaming in from an alternate universe where conspiracy theory is treated as fact, and Donald Trump’s opinions of the witnesses are slapped onscreen to represent fact-checking context.

Nobody should care if Taylor is a “Never Trumper.” What does it matter if he has details to offer regarding allegations that Trump violated his oath of office? (For the record, when asked by a Democratic member of the committee if he fit the "Never Trumper" label, Taylor said no.)

But then, nobody should expect Fox to sober up this late in the game. In fact, their doubling down in their efforts to propagandize on Trump’s behalf further proves that the company views this as a test to see just how powerfully they can influence the course of a process laid out in the Constitution. They want to make sure that we, as a nation, continue to see the same testimony as at least two different shows.

Media analysts took Reuters and NBC News to task for evaluating a televised process meant to provide transparency to the committee’s investigation as if its duty is to entertain, and they are right to do so.

Understand, however, that in extraordinary moments like this impeachment inquiry, members of the media easily forget their obligation to break down the substance presented into useful context and meaning. I say this based on experience. The very first days of the Iraq War in 2003 coincided with the beginning of my career as a TV critic. My strengths, at that time, rested in reviewing scripted programs and reality TV. As a media critic, I was . . . green.

As a country, we were being marched to war by an administration bent on punishing anyone for 9/11 and settling on Saddam Hussein on the basis of specious administration claims, disseminated in no small part by an easily manipulated press. We were also deep into Season 2 of “24,” the one where Jack Bauer heroically finds and defuses a nuke placed on American soil by Middle Eastern terrorists. All told it was a very exciting and nerve-racking time.

The phrase “shock and awe” also was drummed into the public, the descriptor then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to describe what the U.S. had in store for Iraq if it didn’t comply with demands to hand over the equally well-scripted tale of “weapons of mass destruction.”

Iraq did not have any WMDs to hand over, although 85 percent of Americans believed they did. This is in spite of reports that U.N. inspectors had not found those weapons. We were watching the same programs back then, the hearing and “24,” and boy were the news channel cameras ever ready for that “shock and awe.” “Shock and awe” was an advertisement for the superiority of American firepower and the assurance that our might would prevail.

Even better, its debut was scheduled. Then-president George W. Bush gave Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay a 48-hour deadline to surrender and leave Iraq.

When the widely promoted “shock and awe” did not manifest as Rumsfeld promised and viewers expected, the response was disappointment. Oh, there were bombardments. Neighborhoods were destroyed. Correspondents reported while under fire.

“Anything you thought a battlefield would look like, that's what we're watching right now," said Greg Kelly, who was reporting for Fox News. "The only thing that's missing is return fire, and I'm fortunate to say that there has been nothing incoming from the Iraqi side."

And this is how I began my summary of the opening moments of a war that officially ended in 2011, eight years later. “Shock? Awww.”

Experience is, in part, a process of making mistakes and learning from them. I look back at this with a grimace and a realization that, in my lack of experience and error, I was expecting war to look like American movies. Like “24.” I and others were more disappointed when the visuals didn’t deliver as opposed to being furious that the American public had been marched into this conflict on unsubstantiated claims and a campaign of misinformation. I was looking for an action show, in other words, not witnessing a horrific attack on the people of a distant land, one that would have lasting ramifications, including the loss of many lives.

People who want excitement out of these impeachment hearings are searching for some kind of drama that the GOP assures them isn’t there while its members do their best to create some.

Bursts of grandstanding courtesy of the likes of Ohio’s Republican Rep. Jim Jordan or his GOP colleague Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York are loud and abrasive and tailored to draw focus away from the topic at hand. They are cubes of red meat conflict cut to be tossed to that reality TV-stunned audience Reuters and NBC assumes to be viewing the proceedings as if it were taking place for their entertainment as opposed to their education.

So in that view, it doesn’t matter if  Schiff and his colleagues cogently break down in pre- and post-hearing statements what the purpose and value of each witness’ testimony is. He was rude to Stefanik on Friday by not allowing her to fling accusations unrelated to the topic at him.

Depending on the type of show that you may have decided that you were watching, Schiff is either a devious villain bent on overturning the results of the 2016 election or, perhaps, taking a firm hand to limit attempted Republican stunts to draw focus away from the line of questioning.

“‘Gagging’ the Gentlewoman,” read Friday’s top headline on Fox News’ website not long after Schiff shut her down, adding in the subhead, “GOP reps rally to Stefanik's defense as Schiff stifles her at impeachment hearings,” as she were some fainting flower.

Later another story's headline blared, “Stefanik Stands Firm: GOP rep mocks Schiff at hearing, claims ‘duplicity,’ ‘abuse of power.’”

On MSNBC's site, under a photo of Stefanik and Jordan, came this headline: 'There were some lies': Fact-checking the GOP's impeachment hearing response.

Some 13.8 million viewers – Democrats, Republicans, Independents – watched Wednesday’s kick-off of the impeachment hearing across the cable news channels, broadcast networks and PBS. (C-SPAN also aired the proceedings, but numbers were not available.) Friday ratings are not available as of this writing. In today’s fractured TV environment that is evidence of high interest in watching this story and how it’s being covered.

From there, the numbers segment off,  with Fox News drawing biggest audience on Wednesday with 2.89 million viewers, followed closely by MSNBC’s viewership of 2.7 million, with ABC pulling just over 2 million. Partisans might be calling this coverage “boring” and asking it to inject more pizzazz, whatever that means.

But hate-watching still counts as watching, even if the shows we think we’re seeing are very different, and substantial effort is being made in print and on television to explain what this important historic chapter that we’re witnessing actually means.

Sadly, experience hints that many of us may not fully understand the larger ramifications of everything surrounding this impeachment inquiry until many years have passed. Trump’s base insists that both he and they value the Constitution while vilifying opponents for following the directives spelled out in the articles within it.

They wear T-shirts demanding we "Read the Transcript" of the “perfect” phone call that ignited this situation in the first place, even though reading the full transcript bolsters the case against him.

No matter; they don’t have to read the source material to be a fan of this program; they don’t have to understand or even agree with the testimony revealing that the hero abused his power if they’re already  huge fans.  They are watching or skimming a very different, dark, senseless entertainment, not a lengthy consideration of fact-finding and questioning. And nobody can convince them otherwise.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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