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As historic impeaching proceedings begin this week, the Beltway press finds itself with a difficult assignment —covering someone as chronically untruthful as Donald Trump as he shouts lies about the scandal that has encircled his presidency. The truth is, loyalist Republicans are banking on the press to provide cover for them by coating the news coverage in Both Sides language, leaving news consumers with the impression that the impeachment trial is nothing more than a partisan mess.
That GOP strategy ran into two large fact bumps late last week when an associate of Trump’s private lawyer Rudy Giuliani said on national television that Trump knew all about their schemes to push the president of Ukraine into announcing a sham investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The next day, the Government Accountability Office announced that the White House broke the law when it withheld nearly $400 million in U.S. security aide to Ukraine in that effort to pressure Ukraine into doing Trump’s bidding.
Yet those two bombshells, landing less than 24 hours apart, were met by collective shoulder shrugs by Republicans, who desperately need the news media to portray impeachment as a "partisan divide," and not one political party effectively divorcing itself from reality and accountability. Most journalists understand the latter is happening, but are much more comfortable embracing the former, in terms of the impeachment narrative that will likely play out this week.
Keep in mind, Trump has admitted to pressuring the Ukraine government, yet Republicans now routinely parade in front of microphones denying Trump ever made any such public admission. Given that behavior, you'd think the dominant media narrative would be about how radical and detached from reality Republicans have become, and what the deep and lasting implications are for our democracy. But most news outlets simply cannot summon the courage to be honest on this issue. Instead, we saw timid coverage during the impeaching proceedings in the House.
"Throughout the committee’s debate, the lawmakers from the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts in front of them," the New YorkTimes marveled in one dispatch, making little effort to determine which party was dealing with facts. "They called each other liars and demagogues and accused each other of being desperate and unfair." The Times' message to readers was clear: We can't figure out which side is telling the truth.
Also this week, the press needs to avoid buying into the GOP narrative that because impeachment outcome is "preordained," the proceedings aren't important or newsworthy. It's boring! (Fact: When Rachel Maddow landed her exclusive interview with Trump schemer Lev Parnas last week, she landed the biggest TV ratings of her career, which indicates news consumers are tuned in and focused.)
First of all, the Senate trial of Bill Clinton was absolutely never in doubt in terms of him being removed from office, yet the media treated that event as one of the most important and solemn political happenings of a generation. So it would be nice, just in terms of consistency, if the press did the same with the Trump impeachment.
And note that the Clinton impeachment outcome was never in doubt not because Democrats refused to engage on the facts or failed maintain an open mind. (Reminder: 30-plus Democratic member of the House supported launching the Clinton impeachment inquiry.) Instead, the GOP-led impeachment fell flat because there was no there, there. Today, it's an entirely different dynamic at work as the entire Republican Party pledges its loyalty to Trump and effectively refuses to engage on the facts of the day, even as startling new ones come tumbling out. This, after Trump has publicly admitted to the allegation of conspiring with a foreign country to help boost his re-election campaign.
And that's the dynamic the press must acknowledge and report on forthrightly in coming weeks: It's not that two sides in the Senate "disagree," about impeachment, it's that one side literally won't even hear the evidence. There has been a complete and deliberate shutdown on shared facts from Republicans.
Appearing on Sunday's "This Week," Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said he hasn't seen any proof that Trump asked foreign governments to get involved in U.S. elections, even though Trump has previously asked foreign governments to get involved while TV cameras were rolling.
For journalists this should all be no-brainer territory, yet the timidity persists. Nervous about "liberal media bias" attacks, reporters and editors do their best to make sure Republicans don't look to be outside of the mainstream, even during their cult-like defense of Trump.