Impeachment Briefing: A Viewer’s Guide to the First Public Hearing

My colleague Nick Fandos spent part of the day standing outside of the secure offices where impeachment investigators have been interviewing witnesses, which members of Congress had repurposed as a rehearsal room. Here’s what Nick told me about the action.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee started a marathon prep session in these bunkerlike offices Tuesday afternoon, when Congress returned from the weeklong break they were on. They meticulously worked through question scripts, knowing that every minute counts tomorrow when on camera.

In their own rooms in the bunker, Republicans busy prepping their own lines were joined for a time by Representative Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican. Representative Jim Jordan emerged from the prep session surrounded by a cadre of aides toting fat legal briefing books and what appeared to be blown-up printouts of exhibits for Wednesday’s hearing.

Speaking of scripts, tomorrow’s hearing will be the first test of how the modern media environment handles a public viewing of impeachment. I talked to James Poniewozik, our television critic, about what makes this round of impeachment so much different from prior ones, an idea he wrote about in a column today.

James, what has made television an effective medium for impeachment hearings?

The thing that distinguishes television is that it’s serial. The greatest television has taken advantage of extended, linear time. Impeachment is a drama that plays out in installments that has a narrative arc and themes. In the Watergate hearings, Democrats broke down the thrust of their investigation into three parts, like the three acts of a play. Characters emerge. There are heroes and comic relief figures and antiheroes and antagonists, all of which you can see evolving day after day.

What was different about how Americans followed the Nixon impeachment?

Watergate took place in a mass media era. There were three commercial TV networks in the 1970s, plus PBS, which meant that anything that aired had to speak to an audience of tens of millions of people at a time. People had these vast, communal, simultaneous experiences that they have not had since. Even if you were a Democrat or Republican, you listened to the same people and gave them a certain amount of credence. People agreed on facts and experiences.

For this impeachment, some people might get their hearing news on cable news, some on late night TV and some through their social media feeds. Part of the fragmentation of our experience of public life has to do with the fact that we literally aren’t watching the same show.

How, then, can the Trump impeachment hearings be influential?

If it’s the case where the impeachment hearings are really more of a dramatic reading of material that’s already come out in the press, that’s not irrelevant or unimportant, but it might mean that they become less about what President Trump did and more about what kind of moral verdict will be placed on these actions. That’s what happened in the Clinton impeachment.

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