Trump im­peach­ment in­quiry heads for live TV

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By David Crary AP Na­tional Writer

Back in 1973, tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans tuned in to what Va­ri­ety called “the hottest day­time soap opera” — the Se­nate Water­gate hear­ings that even­tu­ally led to Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion.

It was a com­mu­nal ex­pe­ri­ence, and by some es­ti­mates, more than 80% of Amer­i­cans tuned in to at least part of the Water­gate tele­casts. They were of­fered by ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as PBS, which won ac­claim and view­ers by show­ing not only the live hear­ings but also the full-length re­plays in prime time.

See­ing the wit­nesses lay out the case against the pres­i­dent moved pub­lic opin­ion de­cid­edly in fa­vor of im­peach­ment. But this time may be dif­fer­ent. When the House im­peach­ment in­quiry of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump be­gins its pub­lic phase on Wed­nes­day, peo­ple will be watch­ing on screens large and small. Many, in fact, are likely to be

watch­ing the pro­ceed­ings on more than one screen, with real-time re­in­force­ment of their pre­ex­ist­ing views of Trump on so­cial me­dia plat­forms and other venues that did not ex­ist in Nixon’s time.

In the Water­gate era, there was no Fox News or na­tion­ally promi­nent con­ser­va­tive talk ra­dio shows, which to­day are fa­vored by many of Trump’s sup­port­ers. Nor was there the equiv­a­lent of MSNBC, which caters to left-of-cen

ter par­ti­sans.

“Peo­ple now have a far greater va­ri­ety of op­tions as to con­sume this,” said pro­fes­sor Tobe Berkovitz, a for­mer po­lit­i­cal me­dia con­sul­tant who teaches com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Bos­ton Univer­sity.

“Every­one might watch the same hear­ing, but then peo­ple are go­ing to di­vide into camps in terms of how they want to en­gage with the anal­y­sis,” he said. “You’re go­ing to pick who you want to in­ter­pret and pro­pa­gan­dize.”

Two decades be­fore Water­gate, Amer­i­cans had their first col­lec­tive im­mer­sion in live tele­casts of a high-stakes Washington hear­ing when Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., po­lar­ized the coun­try with his re­lent­less pur­suit of sus­pected com­mu­nist sym­pa­thiz­ers. Joseph Welch, a lawyer rep­re­sent­ing the Army, is re­mem­bered to this day for his ques­tion to McCarthy in 1954: “Have you no sense of de­cency, sir?”

The Water­gate hear­ings pro­duced a com­pa­ra­bly mem­o­rable catch­phrase, when Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., sum­ma­rized the gist of the com­plex in­quiry into a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated break-in: “What did the pres­i­dent know and when did he know it?” A damn­ing an­swer even­tu­ally sur­faced after the Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Pres­i­den­tial Cam­paign Ac­tiv­i­ties, as the Se­nate’s Water­gate Com­mit­tee was of­fi­cially called, ob­tained se­cret Oval Of­fice tapes that im­pli­cated Nixon in a cover-up.

In the runup to Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s im­peach­ment by the House in De­cem­ber 1998 and ac­quit­tal by the Se­nate two months later, there was a sim­i­lar dra­matic twist when dis­clo­sure of Mon­ica Lewin­sky’s se­men-stained blue dress un­der­cut Clin­ton’s claim that he had never had sex with her.

Kath­leen Hall Jamieson, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s An­nen­berg Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter, said Amer­i­cans ex­pect­ing an equally dra­matic mo­ment in the up­com­ing im­peach­ment tele­casts may be let down, given that so much im­por­tant tes­ti­mony al­ready has been pre­sented in closed-door ses­sions.

“If you’re ex­pect­ing reve­la­tion as op­posed to con­fir­ma­tion, you’re go­ing to be dis­ap­pointed,” Jamieson said. “It’s go­ing to seem an­ti­cli­mac­tic un­less some­thing new is dis­cov­ered.”

She noted an­other con­trast be­tween Water­gate and the Trump in­quiry. Nixon and his top aides strug­gled to com­mu­ni­cate per­sua­sively with the pub­lic as the in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­folded, whereas Trump and his ad­vis­ers are mak­ing in­ten­sive use of ad­ver­tis­ing and so­cial me­dia “to make sure his base stays locked down.”

Will the up­com­ing im­peach­ment tele­casts change many minds?

Mark Meck­ler, an early leader in the tea party move­ment, pre­dicts a lot of Amer­i­cans won’t even watch the broad­casts be­cause they’ve al­ready reached con­clu­sions.

Many Trump sup­port­ers won’t tune in “be­cause they think it’s a sham process,” he said. “And I don’t think most peo­ple on the left will watch be­cause they al­ready know the con­clu­sion in their minds. To them, the pres­i­dent has been im­peach­able since be­fore he was elected.”

But Dar­rell West, a long­time po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor who is now vice pres­i­dent of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, said the tele­casts will boost pub­lic in­ter­est.

“They will put hu­man faces on the closed-door tes­ti­mony,” he said in an email. “View­ers will be able to ob­serve what peo­ple say and how they say it as well as the man­ner in which they an­swer ques­tions.”

West ac­knowl­edged that most peo­ple have made up their minds on Trump’s guilt or in­no­cence.

“But the tes­ti­mony doesn’t have to shift very many peo­ple to be po­lit­i­cally in­flu­en­tial,” he wrote. “If only 10% are af­fected neg­a­tively by the tes­ti­mony, Trump’s re­moval num­ber jumps from 50 to 60%. That would rep­re­sent an enor­mous hit for him and could lead some Repub­li­can Sen­a­tors to con­sider a vote to re­move the Pres­i­dent.”

Arthur San­ders, a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Drake Univer­sity in Des Moines, Iowa, re­called that pub­lic sup­port for Nixon’s im­peach­ment grew as the tele­vised Water­gate

in­quiry pro­gressed, while most Amer­i­cans re­mained op­posed to Clin­ton’s ouster at ev­ery stage of his im­peach­ment process.

“The Democrats hope this fol­lows the Nixon model — Trump has al­ways hoped it fol­lows the Clin­ton model,” San­ders said.

Re­gard­less of how the TV au­di­ence shapes up, San­ders knows of some Amer­i­cans ea­ger to fol­low the Trump im­peach­ment drama.

“What’s go­ing on now is hor­ri­ble for the coun­try, but it’s the best time to teach classes on Amer­i­can pol­i­tics,” he said. “The stu­dents are so cu­ri­ous, try­ing to fig­ure out what’s go­ing on — what’s nor­mal in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and what isn’t.”

As for PBS, it’s not plan­ning a re­peat of prime-time im­peach­ment re­plays but says the day­time tele­casts will be avail­able on de­mand via all of PBS’ dig­i­tal plat­forms.


In this May 18, 1973, file photo, the hear­ing of the Se­nate se­lect com­mit­tee on the Water­gate case on Capi­tol Hill in Washington.

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