Much of the evidence introduced during the House impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump was accessible to Americans through the news media and online sites. This allowed unprecedented access to hours of testimony, the opportunity to review documents and, ostensibly, to judge the case against Trump for themselves.
The free American press showed how it’s vital to democracy during times like these, synthesizing the news of the day into comprehendible, contextual stories.
While some of the most engaged Americans took advantage of this raw information, it’s safe to say most Americans didn’t have the time or interest to work that hard to fully understand what was going on.
The House of Representatives accused Trump of abuse of power by pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, while withholding nearly $400 million approved by Congress for military and security assistance for Ukraine. A second article of impeachment accused him of obstructing Congress by ignoring subpoenas for documents and forbidding current and former White House officials and agency heads from testifying before House committees.
Testimony leading up to impeachment was broadcast live, allowing viewers to hear the evidence and judge the credibility of witnesses. News organizations also posted documents, including the summary of Trump’s July 25 phone call in which he sought Zelensky’s assistance, the memo from a whistleblower who was concerned about what the president said on the call and text messages between diplomats about the president withholding congressionally approved money for Ukraine.
But, if just watching the testimony in the House, most Americans, unfamiliar with Congressional processes, would find it difficult to sort out the lawyerly written documents and voluminous testimony through a maze of federal law, constitutional guidance and congressional rules. They might be both amused and confounded by the arcane language used in congressional hearings, such as, “I yield back,” “The chair recognizes the gentlewoman from Florida” and “The member will suspend.”
Americans would get a better sense of the case from news organizations that accurately report on the impeachment using plain language and put the details into context.
Fortunately, numerous news organizations did this.
They not only reported what happened but also what it meant. They showed the most revealing testimony and posted and explained documents.
But in our polarized political environment, many citizens prefer information that aligns with their views, accurate or not, and will dismiss factual reporting that conflicts with what they believe.
Some prefer to turn to media outlets where they consider rants from commentators real news and news from just about every mainstream outlet fake.
Mainstream coverage has not been perfect, as Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan pointed out in a column last month urging journalists to do better.
“Granted, it’s been a mixed record,” Sullivan wrote. But, she explained, “journalists have done a lot right — they have pointed out lies, dug out what’s really happening, skillfully explained and analyzed.”
It’s up to Americans to take off their blinders and accept truthful reporting if they’re not going to do their own objective research.
Rod Hicks is Journalist on Call for the Society of Professional Journalists.