The Memo: Debate over style vs. substance shadows impeachment hearings

The Memo: Debate over style vs. substance shadows impeachment hearings
© Greg Nash

Will the battle over President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE’s impeachment be decided by issues of style or substance?

It’s a question that has acquired new sharpness in the wake of the first public hearings this week.

Those hearings brought William Taylor and George Kent — the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a senior State Department official, respectively — before the House Intelligence Committee. 

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The ousted U.S. ambassador, Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchSenate confirms Trump's Russia ambassador The State Department: Nonpartisan service on behalf of America Nunes: 'Sickening' that Schiff obtained his phone records MORE, testified Friday. More hearings will follow next week.

Reaction to the first day of testimony split along predictable partisan lines on Capitol Hill. But it was the reaction from some media quarters that created a firestorm.

Reuters news story on the testimony from the two diplomats called it “consequential but dull” and added that “fireworks and explosive moments were scarce.” An NBC News analysis argued that the hearing “was substantive but it wasn’t dramatic.” 

Cue uproar. 

Trump critics fired back furiously at those assessments, arguing that the gravity of the accusations against Trump was the story — not the level of entertainment that was being provided.

Tommy Vietor, a former aide to President Obama and a co-host of the Pod Save America podcast, blasted the Reuters analysis as “breathtakingly bad.”

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Vietor added: “New revelations about the President of the United States personally directing an extortion scheme are boring?"

As is often the case on social media, even a single word proved problematic. An NBC News tweet publicizing its story stated that the hearing had lacked “pizazz” — a word not used in the body of the story itself.

The NBC News “pizazz” tweet was duly "ratioed." Within 24 hours, it had drawn more than 28,000 replies — overwhelmingly from people offering criticism — and fewer than three thousand likes.

Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti tweeted that Democrats should ignore “analysts who ask for more ‘pizazz,’” adding, “Democrats should continue to treat this with the solemnity and seriousness it merits. Let the evidence do the talking.”

Broader critiques were also leveled.

“For reporters to complain ‘no fireworks’ is like computer scientists complaining ‘It's all just a bunch of 1s and 0s,’” tweeted David Frum, political commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “We draw salaries precisely because it is our job to convert data into story.”

But those schisms reflect a complicated reality. 

The strength of the evidence against Trump is self-evidently important. But the political nature of the impeachment process also means both parties are engaged in a battle for public opinion. The level of drama will likely be one of the factors that will decide the outcome.

If Democrats are going to shift voters who have stuck by Trump through all his many controversies so far, they would ideally want moments of testimony powerful enough to register on the Richter Scale. If they don’t get them, their chances of political success will be lowered.

Jonathan Allen, the author of the NBC News piece, defended his analysis with a version of this argument. 

“I’ve gotten some email and tweets suggesting that the presentation aspect of the impeachment hearings — the politics, optics, whatever — is unimportant,” Allen wrote on Twitter. “If that were true, there would be no need for majority Democrats to repeat the hearings they had in private in recent weeks.”

Other reporters made similar points. 

“Saying the hearing was boring is not necessarily criticism or a plea for drama. If people are too bored to pay attention, the hearings may not have the impact that Democrats want them to have,” New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi tweeted.

Yet there are, too, valid points made by the media critics. 

There are obvious dangers if coverage of impeachment hews too closely to the “horse race” model often seen in election reporting.

The question of whether the president of the United States sought to extort a foreign government to obtain dirt on a political opponent is plainly vital — irrespective of whether it moves the polls or not.

Additionally, the pro-Trump camp is clearly pushing the line that the hearings are dull for its own political purposes. 

One of the president’s sons, Eric TrumpEric Frederick TrumpMia Farrow resurfaces photo of Trump sons with dead leopard after signing of animal cruelty bill Eric Trump promotes Trump wine as Sondland testifies: 'Perfect day for a nice bottle of this' Resistance or unhinged behavior? Partisan hatred reaches Trump's family MOREargued on Twitter that the testimony from Taylor was “horribly boring” and that no one outside the Beltway was interested in it. 

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Of course, the more people who believe that to be true, the healthier his father’s political fortunes look.

So far, there is plenty of evidence that the public is interested. The first day of hearings drew more than 13 million television viewers. 

For the president, a man unusually fixated on ratings, that is reason enough to be worried — irrespective of how loud or bright the fireworks.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.