The impeachment story and the proportionality problem
By Jon Allsop
As of early this morning, Democrats’ move to subpoena Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, for records about his efforts to score dirt on Trump’s political opponents from officials in Ukraine was the top story on the homepage of the Associated Press. That of the Wall Street Journal led with an explosive report that Mike Pompeo, the secretary of State, participated in The Phone Call between Trump and Ukraine’s president. (Last week, Pompeo seemed to deny direct knowledge of what was said on the call.) The main character on the homepage of the Washington Post was William Barr, the attorney general, who reportedly urged foreign powers to help him investigate the origins of the Mueller probe, an endeavor critics say is rooted in a conspiracy theory. The New York Times led with a slightly different scoop: Trump, it reports, pressured Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, to aid Barr’s Mueller inquiries, in a phone call that was subsequently locked down by White House record-keepers. CNN’s homepage led with Trump’s “floundering” response to all of the above.
The Trump-Ukraine story, it’s safe to say, is now about much more than Trump and Ukraine. “White flag,” Jason Kint, who leads an association of digital publishers, tweeted. “I can’t keep up.”
This is how big stories are supposed to look. Journalists start with a tantalizing revelation or two, then follow the threads to uncover a sprawling web of scandal that officials really didn’t want them to see. At the end, with the public on edge, there’s supposed to be a big reveal—a smoking gun or similar dramatic payoff. (Think Nixon’s resignation.) “I think there’s something about a cover-up, the allegations of a cover-up, that give this momentum. They create a sense of mystery that Trump cannot control,” CNN’s Brian Stelter said on air yesterday. “This gives the story a sense of propulsion that Trump can’t really challenge.”
But this is the Trump administration, and nothing is normal. The drip-drip of embarrassing details, the implication of characters we didn’t previously know were centrally involved, the suggestion of a cover-up—all of which we saw just yesterday—would plunge any other presidency into crisis. The pressure, it’s true, is amping up, and Trump seems to be feeling it. One could make the case, however, that the sprawl of the Ukraine story might actually favor him. Since Trump entered the political spotlight, he’s flooded our attention with a barrage of information—real and junk. The effect has been dizzying, for journalists as well as news consumers. In this regard, last week was an outlier: the news was dominated by a single, relatively clear narrative: that Trump directly pressured a foreign counterpart to help him politically. (The clarity of the charge was a key reason House Democrats finally initiated impeachment proceedings, a step they did not take after Mueller’s damning—yet long and complicated—report came out.) This week, the news cycle looks much less clean.
It’s journalists’ job to try and present messy facts cleanly for public consumption, not to impeach the president. The challenge here is communicating proportionality. It stands to reason that the more evidence there is behind a story, the more weight the story should acquire. In the disinformation presidency, that dynamic seems to have come unstuck: the more moving parts there are to a story, the harder it is for people to grasp—and the easier it is for bad actors to call the whole thing a convoluted conspiracy.
The false-equivalence argument illustrates this problem. It’s commonly held that the media, in 2016, hyped thin stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails to balance out the deluge of scandals about Trump, and that it should not do so again; that’s why, when the Trump-Ukraine story started to surface, many commentators feared that Joe Biden, on whom Trump was trying to gather dirt, would be tainted by association. We can learn lessons from 2016, and it’s welcome that the threatened barrage of “But what about Biden?” stories has mostly been absent from Trump coverage in recent days. Underpinning all this, however, is an uncomfortable truth: even when the press is debunking Trump’s unevidenced claims about Biden (which are, after all, central to this story), Biden’s name is entering the public consciousness next to words such as “corruption.” In an age of information glut, simple associations like that one, even if erroneous, can stick. Arguably, the word “emails” stuck to Clinton in 2016 more than any individual, scandal-related word stuck to Trump—perhaps because there were so many to choose from. Again, it’s not the media’s job to sway elections. But when the facts we report have an inversely proportionate impact to their gravity, isn’t that our problem?
It may be that there’s nothing the press can do here. The best journalism on the Trump era has come when reporters have followed facts to their logical conclusions; too often, a preoccupation with audience perception (for example, around words like “lie” and “racist”) has led to unhelpful, reactionary coverage. When it comes to the story sprawling in front of us now, we’d do well to remember that very damning facts are already out there; indeed, the White House already admitted to their substance, if not their gravity. In all likelihood, there are plenty more damning facts to uncover, and we should uncover them. But we should remember, too, that not every big reveal need come at the end of a story. Sometimes, it comes at the beginning.
Below, more on a sprawling story:
- There there: CJR’s Lauren Harris spoke with Adam Entous, an investigative reporter at the New Yorker, who looked into the allegations about Biden, his son, and Ukraine before the present scandal blew up. Was there a “there” there, Harris asked. “I found that the allegation, as best I could tell, was not true,” Entous replied.
- Name recognition: According to FiveThirtyEight’s Dhrumil Mehta, as the Ukraine story intensified last week, Biden was mentioned in more cable news segments and online stories than all of his 2020 Democratic rivals combined. “All this suggests that the impeachment story could eat up a lot of the media oxygen that would otherwise have been dedicated to the Democratic primary,” Mehta writes.
- Hypocrisy: Many of the outraged right-wing boosters defending Trump against impeachment proceedings, of course, vocally called for Barack Obama to be impeached when he was a president. Media Matters for America’s Parker Molloy recaps their arguments, and how the ground has shifted since then.
- A wide lens: CNN’s Stelter and Margaret Sullivan, of the Post, zoomed out on impeachment coverage so far on yesterday’s episode of The Takeaway.
Other notable stories:
- Two years after the revelations about Harvey Weinstein sparked the #MeToo movement, New York magazine spoke with 25 people who came forward with stories about sexual assault to find out what happened to them after the glare of media attention went away. “The women who came forward were most often not received as heroic actors who had already suffered real losses and were chancing further degradation and penalty,” Rebecca Traister writes. “There has been very little acknowledgment that the risks of speaking up in many ways replicate the risks of harassment itself: the pressures, the humiliations, the possibility of having one’s professional record obscured by smears.”
- Facebook’s plans to pay news organizations when linking to their content in a forthcoming news tab were vaunted as a significant change for the platform’s treatment of media companies—but three quarters of the publishers involved will see no cash at all, the Wall Street Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert and Sahil Patel report. The news tab could launch as soon as this month; Facebook is still building out the team of curators that will work on it. Last month, CJR’s Mathew Ingram expressed skepticism of Facebook’s human curation plans; its last attempt at that turned into a “fiasco,” he noted.
- For CJR, Lewis Raven Wallace offers five tips for reporting on trans and nonbinary people: journalists, Wallace says, should get over “the pronoun hump”; pass the TGI (Try Googling It) Test; avoid false equivalence; listen to trans people’s mistrust; and abandon the myth of the “trans thought police.” Wallace writes: “Depictions of a social-media mob of trans people trying to silence debate distort the real power relationships at play.”
- Following staff complaints and a public outcry in the UK, the BBC reversed its decision to censure Naga Munchetty, one of its morning anchors, for saying that Trump’s tweets about Congresswomen of color were “embedded in racism,” a comment it initially considered to be a violation of its impartiality rules. Tony Hall, the broadcaster’s director general, made the call yesterday, but stopped short of apologizing to Munchetty.
- Also in the UK, Hanna Yusuf, a BBC News reporter who also contributed to The Guardian and The Independent, died last week, aged 27. “Hanna was a dedicated young vibrant professional who became a bridge between the media and the community,” her family said. The Guardian’s Maya Wolfe-Robinson has a remembrance.
- In Morocco, Hajar Raissouni, a journalist who has covered recent unrest in the country, was sentenced to a year in jail for having sex outside marriage and an illegal abortion, The Guardian’s Ruth Michaelson reports. Raissouni called the charges against her “fabricated”; observers agree, and say she was likely punished for her journalism.
- Nieman Lab’s Christine Schmidt charts the efforts of Radio Ambulante—a Spanish-language podcast, distributed by NPR, that centers stories about Latin America—to connect its listeners around the world through in-person “listening clubs.” Schmidt writes: “Listening clubs are like a book club—but for podcast episodes.”
- And in the month of September, there were more searches for climate change than for Game of Thrones for the first time since GoT became a thing, Grist’s Kate Yoder reports. September, Yoder writes, was like “one long Super Bowl for climate change” coverage—in part thanks to CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now initiative.