Here we go again investing all kinds of hope and hype in the public impeachment hearings that started Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee. You would think after the letdowns of the Brett Kavanaugh and Robert Mueller hearings, that we in the media would know better — that TV hearings don’t change the culture in a flash as some media histories have been telling us for decades.
Yes, public impeachment hearings are a very big moment in our nation’s life. I’ll be in front of several screens for every second of the hearings and surely way too engaged for the good of my mental health. But that said, here’s a modest proposal: Let’s not get caught up in the false promise of a magical, transformative, media moment and forget the real, daily, gritty, grind-it-out, journalistic work it takes to get rid of someone elected to high office who proves dangerously unworthy of it.
In a column last year about my sense of deflation following Judge Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearing, I wrote about what I called the mighty media version of our national past. Since the late 1960s, many media analysts and some media studies professors have been oversimplifying our social history in part to inflate the importance of their field. They attribute major political and social change almost exclusively to media moments when, in fact, there are many forces responsible for such changes.
Some of the key post-World-War moments of this narrative: The Army-McCarthy TV hearings and Edward R. Murrow’s CBS “See It Now” report on Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954; Walter Cronkite’s 1968 repudiation of the Vietnam War on CBS; the Watergate hearings on PBS in 1973; and the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings on all the major broadcast networks and CNN in 1991.
In focusing all of our historical attention on a couple of TV moments, we overlook events like that of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Republican from Maine, delivering a withering denunciation of the tactics used by McCarthy and other members of her party in a speech titled “A Declaration of Conscience” on the floor of the Senate in 1950.
Or, that of Vermont Sen. Ralph Flanders, another Republican, who also denounced McCarthy four years later. Such important political moments are lost in narratives that overemphasize the role of media in watershed historical moments.
The Senate Watergate hearings on PBS in 1973 are being invoked regularly in connection with this week’s hearings, and there are some solid reasons for that. They played a role in the resignation of President Richard Nixon, who defied the Constitution and came under fire for using the power of his office to undermine a political opponent, just as President Trump is alleged to have done in withholding aid to Ukraine in an effort to get the president of that country to try to find dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
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The Watergate hearings, which began in May 1973, were hugely important. I watched the live hearings during the day and sometimes the reruns at night on PBS as an out of work graduate with a freshly minted degree. They gave me the foundation of a political education I didn’t get in school.
But President Nixon didn’t resign until August 1974 -- a year later. The TV hearings didn’t bring him down, the grinding, steady work of the Washington Post led by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did, along with some courageous members of Congress who signaled their willingness to vote for impeachment across party lines.
We have that kind of great, grinding, day-in-and-day-out reporting and analysis today from the Washington Post and New York Times, plus platforms like Rachel Maddow’s nightly show on MSNBC. That’s the kind of relentless work that could ultimately spell the end of President Donald Trump.
And yet, belief in the almighty power of TV hearings remains so strong that former PBS show host Bill Moyers took our a full page ad in the New York Times Friday urging PBS to not only carry the hearings live (as PBS is doing) but rerun them in prime time just like 1973. Except the fragmented media landscape of TV could hardly be more different than it was in 1973.
In our new digital media ecosystem, live TV hearings still matter. But they aren’t what they used to be in a predigital world. In fact, they never where what they are regularly remembered as being today.
So, by all means, watch the impeachment hearings. Don’t miss a moment if you can help it. But don’t sit down in front of the screen expecting to be saved.