In my lifetime, the Articles of Impeachment have been prepared to go to the House of Representatives twice: once for Richard Nixon in 1974 and once for Bill Clinton in 1998.
As this week begins, it looks like we’re heading for number three with Donald Trump. I thought it might be interesting to look at these impeachment proceedings in the context of the media landscape.
As I started my research, I realized this actually shows the dramatic shifts both in our media and in the culture of our ideologies. It’s worth taking a few minutes to examine them.
First, a little historical housekeeping. Two presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Nixon resigned before the articles got to the House for voting.
Because I’m looking at impeachment in the context of media, I’m going to skip Andrew Johnson and stick to the 20th century examples.
Richard Nixon, 1974
First of all, to provide a somewhat objective baseline to begin with, let’s begin with a quick assessment of each impeachment case using two criteria from David Greenberg, a professor of history from Rutgers, author and a contributing editor at Politico.
First, was impeachment and conviction justified? And secondly, was impeachment and conviction possible? Remember, no presidential impeachment case has won the vote in both houses, leading to the removal of a president.
According to Greenberg, Nixon’s impeachment was both justified and possible. Tricky Dick was heading for almost certain impeachment when he resigned on August 9, 1974.
The U.S. in 1974 was deeply divided ideologically but this rift did not extend to the media. The US media landscape was relatively monolithic in the 70s, dominated by national newspapers and the three big television networks.
Media coverage of the Watergate scandal followed the lead of one of those national papers, The Washington Post, and the now mythic reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. With a few exceptions, this media bloc definitely leaned left in its political views.
The “Watergate Effect” would make its mark on national journalism for the next two decades. Suddenly, there was a flood of bright, idealistic (and yes, primarily left-leaning) young people choosing journalism as a career. America’s right became increasingly frustrated with a media complex they saw as being dangerously biased to the left. One of the most vocal was Nixon’s own executive producer for his TV appearances, a twentysomething named Roger Ailes.
Bill Clinton, 1998
This brings us to the Clinton impeachment case, launched by an extramarital affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. According to Greenberg’s assessment, this impeachment was neither justified nor possible.
What’s interesting about the Clinton case is how it marks the emergence of a right-wing media voice. The impeachment itself was largely a vendetta against the Clintons driven by Pentagon employee Linda Tripp and prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Tripp secretly recorded her conversations with Lewinsky in which she acknowledged the affair with Clinton.
Tripp then took the recordings to Newsweek, hoping they would go public immediately. Given the implications of the story, Newsweek elected to sit on the story pending further verification.
Tripp was frustrated and had a book agent walk the tapes over to the Drudge Report, a fledgling Right-Wing story aggregator with a subscriber email list. Drudge immediately published, causing a flustered mainstream media to follow suit.
Clinton’s impeachment gave a voice to the right-wing media. That same Roger Ailes was granted the helm of Fox News by Rupert Murdoch in 1996. The conservatives were able to outflank the established media machine by laying claim to the emerging media platforms of cable TV and online news sites. This was media with a difference.
Although the left-wing bias of mainstream media was generally acknowledged by most, it was largely an unspoken truth. Most journalists professed to be resolutely neutral and unbiased. The right-wing media was not so subtle. Their role was to counteract what they felt was a leftist spin machine.
Donald Trump, 2019
As we seem to be barreling toward impeachment, how will the story play out in today’s media and political landscape?
Greenberg is quick to point out that these are uncharted waters. It makes little sense to look for historical precedent, because this impeachment will be unlike anything we have seen before.
For what it’s worth, he says the Impeachment of Donald Trump is justified, but is highly unlikely to be successful, given that the Senate is controlled by a seemingly uncrackable Republican majority.
But here are the wild cards that we in the media should be watching:
1) The speed at which this is playing out is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We are only one week into this.
2) We have never had a President — or a White House — like this.
3) We have never had a media landscape like this. There is a very vocal right-wing media machine that has proven to be every bit as effective as the mainstream media.
4) The way we consume and interact with media is light years removed from two decades ago. This shift has been so massive that we are still grappling with understanding it.
5) The general public has never been networked the way we are now. We have seen the fallout from network effects both in the 2016 U.S. election and the U.K.’s Brexit vote. What part will networks play in an impeachment?