Televised impeachment begins: Are Democrats ready for their close-up?

Televised impeachment begins: Are Democrats ready for their close-up?
© Getty Images

The power of television over politics is about to surge to a whole new level. Formal impeachment hearings will be broadcast live — and Washington may not be ready for its close-up.

Hearings are set to begin today, and the decision by House leaders to put key impeachment witnesses in front of live TV cameras means viewers and voters will see for themselves the men and women who, up until now, have only spoken out behind closed doors.

Those live pictures could decide the fate of the Trump presidency. But they will also place Democrats pushing impeachment in a harsh spotlight they may not survive.

ADVERTISEMENT

During my years as a television executive, I saw how adept we humans are at reading other people’s faces. Charles Darwin was the first to discover this, calling it a survival tool developed by early tribes; facial expressions revealed if a stranger was friend or foe, con-man or comrade. 

That ancient truth carries on through the TV screen today. In focus groups I’ve overseen, critiques from viewers were rarely based on content. Expressions told them whether to believe an anchor, whether a show’s guest actually cared about the subject matter or a host liked her job. That’s why television lives and dies by the close-up. It takes us within breathing distance of the speaker, where our innate abilities to read facial clues work best.

Studies also show information has a much greater impact when it’s delivered in person, face-to-face. We have an easier time following the logic and holding on to key points. 

All of this could spell doom for Trump — as long as every witness comes across like a contemporary John Dean, the earnest-appearing Nixon White House lawyer whose calm, credible televised testimony helped the Watergate hearings turn the public in favor of impeachment.

But, of course, that’s not how these situations always play out. If House Democrats roll the dice on a witness who isn’t perfect, they could lose everything, including their own reputations.

ADVERTISEMENT

Images — especially TV images — are powerful. When the image doesn’t live up to the message you’re trying to send, the message falls apart.

All Democrats need do is remember Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE. For nearly two years, the former FBI director cast an intimidating shadow over politics as a vigorous no-nonsense prosecutor — the kind of tough-guy only Robert DeNiro could play on “Saturday Night Live.” 

But when he finally testified before Congress, live TV told a different story: Mueller, looking tired and uncertain, presented a stark contrast to the confident portrait conveyed by the voluminous Mueller Report. His face said one thing, the information something else. For most viewers, the face won, diminishing the impact of work carried out by a team of 15 lawyers that brought indictments against 34 individuals and three companies.

As with Mueller, Democrats in charge of impeachment won’t know what they have until someone sits down, turns on a microphone and faces the camera. Over-rehearsed, under-rehearsed, too nervous, too composed — each can come across as an inauthentic negative to a TV audience searching, through facial cues, for the truth. 

As with the Nixon and Clinton hearings, TV will no doubt once again create a cast of heroes and villains, faces and expressions, that audiences will never forget. But just whose face, closing the deal for which side, is impossible to predict.  

Committee members and their witnesses must keep one uncomfortable truth in mind: The camera will control their stories, not the other way around. 

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.