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Impeachment Media Messaging


The House Intelligence Committee will hear more witnesses this week for its impeachment inquiry, including diplomats who handled Ukraine policy. But the battle over impeachment will be fought in the court of public opinion, as well as in the halls of Congress. And it is a battle to control the message. President Trump has bombarded the electorate with a constant stream of tweets. He's relentlessly held the airwaves, making himself available to the press every time he gets on a helicopter. And his message is consistent.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's all a hoax, folks. It's all a big hoax.

What these guys are doing - Democrats are doing to this country is a disgrace.

He made it up. Every word of it, made up.

It's a joke. Impeachment for that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His words repeated over and over are echoed and amplified by his right-wing media allies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This was a setup. Who were these other people in the White House who were looking to sink our president?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The House Intel Committee chairman Adam - the cowardly shifty Schiff - he has been caught in yet another insane lie. The same people who spent two years writing Russia collusion fan fiction are outraged once again - or did they ever stop being outraged? Probably not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the Democrats are staying on their message, too.


NANCY PELOSI: This is a cover-up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Fundamental breach of the president's oath of office.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Classic abuse of power.

PELOSI: The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To help us understand how the messaging battle is being waged in our media ecosystem and why it matters, we have Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, and Farhad Manjoo, an opinion columnist for The New York Times. Welcome to you both.


MARGARET SULLIVAN: Thanks very much, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Margaret, I'm going to start with you. Are we back in 2016, where everything Donald Trump says is breaking news and breathlessly reported and he gets a lot of unfiltered free airtime?

SULLIVAN: I actually think we've learned a few things since the campaign and since the early days of the Trump presidency. When I say we, I mean the news media writ large. I think we're a little bit more likely to make sure that the things that are being amplified - not in every case, but in many cases - that they're fact checked in real-time and that they're expressed as - you know, said something without evidence and so on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Biden has expressed concern, though, that he's being smeared. Others have said that the goal is to do to Biden what they say was done to Hillary - you know, the - but her emails. Is that what's happening?

SULLIVAN: I mean, I think a lot of people do think that - even though there's really no evidence to support this - that Biden - you know, there's sort of a vague idea that, oh, he did something wrong, too. So I think, to that extent, the president's message has gotten through.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Farhad, are the Democrats keeping up in your view? We see a lot of Adam Schiff - a lot of Democratic lawmakers talking on the media, but can they compete with the sheer volume of Trump coverage?

MANJOO: I don't think they can. And that's one of the things that worries me. I mean, I feel like the president's side is doing a really effective job at kind of repeating - as you said, repeating this charge about the Bidens, repeating just sort of witch hunt - that rhetoric. And I'm not sure that the Democrats are doing that much to counter it. There's a storyline in the - on the right now about - the whistleblower's story was different from the transcript that was released, or he had secondhand information. That's just being endlessly repeated, even though it doesn't seem like a logical point. But it's just sort of the main message that you hear on the right. And I feel like that echoing is going to continue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about the right-wing ecosystem and specifically Fox News and the role that it plays in this. Farhad, you had a column the other day advising readers to watch Fox News. You wrote, "While other organizations report the news, Fox News is the news." Can you explain?

MANJOO: For the most part, the pundits on Fox News endlessly repeat Trump's talking points. I mean, they're very - you know, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson are very close to the president. They've advised him on policy. And so, you know, I think it was interesting that we saw some pushback against the administration on - particularly on sort of the news reporting side of Fox News - Chris Wallace, on his Sunday show, was really - you know, asked tough questions of Stephen Miller, a Trump aide. Wallace was also pointing out the various ways that the administration was trying to spin this story in a way that, you know, reflected, I think, the kind of highest traditions of journalism.

SULLIVAN: I think that Farhad is being too positive. I think that the moments in which we see reality rear its head on Fox News are relatively rare, and that Fox makes a big point - their PR operation makes a big point of using those moments of Shepard Smith or Chris Wallace to say, see. We're - we are, in fact, fair and balanced. They're not fair and balanced. They're actually very close to state TV most of the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So if, then, we are in this media landscape, I'm wondering, can we tell how the public is being influenced when they are getting such different information from so many disparate sources?

MANJOO: We've noticed that the - you know, the polls on impeachment have changed in a big way. We hadn't really seen a lot of movement on the question of whether the president should be impeached and the kind of opposition to impeachment was - has long been kind of higher than support for it, and that flipped. And I think that flip reflects both the new evidence but the way that the public is understanding the new evidence - the role of the media here. And clearly, I think, you know, Americans are paying attention to this story. And their actual feelings about impeachment have shifted as a result of this story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm going to ask you, finally, is my thesis wrong that this is playing out in the court of public opinion? Might it not just be a matter of certain constituencies - the base of President Trump will stick with the president, and that will keep Republicans locked to their narrative, and it doesn't actually really matter what the media covers or how it covers it?

MANJOO: I think it is true that this will play out in the court of public opinion. And because of that, what the media does is very important. I also would say that we might not notice a lot of change because we're just in a fundamentally polarized country where, you know, 40 percent believes one thing, and 60 percent believes another thing and we may not see, you know, a huge shift in that. But still what happens at the margins is interesting and important and might affect what, you know, senators do, what people in the House do. That's important.

SULLIVAN: Well, I think the media coverage is extremely important and will be going forward. You know, one thing I keep hammering over and over that I'd like to bring up - because I think it's germane here - is that the news media needs to be very careful not to walk down the middle of this thing and try to say, well, there's over here and there's this and there's that, and they're kind of the same, and we want to give them equal time. That's an impulse we have that maybe comes out of a sense of wanting to be fair, but it often creates false equivalencies that are actually damaging, and I think we need to be very careful about this because not all things are created equal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan and Farhad Manjoo, opinion writer for The New York Times. Thank you both so very much.

SULLIVAN: Thanks very much.

MANJOO: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.