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The Media Spectacle Of Impeachment Hearings


Starting this week, we enter a brand-new phase of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Witnesses that have been testifying behind closed doors to House investigators will move out into the light - the TV lights, to be exact. Public hearings begin on Wednesday, and Americans can tune in and hear and watch the drama unfold in real time. Well, at least, that's the idea. But not everyone will be watching in the same way. There's Twitter. There's Fox. There's late-night and on and on and on.

To help us sort through it all, we're joined now by CNN's Brian Stelter, the host of "Reliable Sources" and their chief media correspondent. Welcome.

BRIAN STELTER: Hey. Thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So essentially, we are in a world now where how we watch, how we consume these hearings, will determine what we see and what we think.

STELTER: Yes, and I think we have to recognize that there are competing universes of information that have been presented about this Ukraine scandal and about President Trump's culpability. He has already been exonerated by pro-Trump media. And so the narrative that he and his allies are presenting - very far from the facts - is nonetheless going to be something that the Democrats are going to have to challenge. And I think they're going to use these televised hearings to do just that. As much as we've heard about the impeachment inquiry for the past six weeks or so, we haven't really seen it play out in public. So that is why Wednesday will be so important.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, and in Nixon's impeachment, it was carried and replayed in the evenings. And everyone sort of had a common experience. But we should note that people may not consume the hearings themselves in the same way. I mean, I might only get to see what happened in the evening, and I could decide that Fox's Sean Hannity will be my guide, or the late-night TV host will be the only place I get a sense of what happened. What does that mean for the court of public opinion?

STELTER: I think you are really hitting on the massive difference from the '70s and even, to a great degree, the '90s versus today. You know, even with the Clinton impeachment, Fox News was tiny compared to what it is today. And there was more of a shared sense of reality among most Americans.

Going back to the '70s, going back to Nixon, yes, there were fringe beliefs that Nixon was being set up and that all this was a sham, but that was not a common view that was articulated every night on television. Of course, that is the view that'll be articulated every night on television on Hannity's show and on others.

I think the other difference this time versus past impeachments is that this inquiry, these hearings, will be clipped up into dozens and hundreds of little clips and consumed throughout the day on social media. What I hope is that people try to soak up a wide variety of sources and, whenever possible, actually hear the live hearings. That's going to be the most important thing so that people can make up their own minds, even though, let's be honest, many minds are already made up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how important is that first day live in front of everybody?

STELTER: I'm really intrigued by what this first day will include because a couple of House leadership aides said to CNN the other day, we know the first hour is critical. We know the first day is critical. It's kind of like watching the first episode of a television show or listening to the first episode of a podcast. People are going to decide whether to keep tuning in. They're going to decide whether to really be engaged in this or, you know, whether just to hear about it later or watch it on the nightly news or listen to it the next day.

So I think the very first episode is going to be crucial for that reason, and the pressure's on the Democrats to premiere in a very interesting and compelling way. I hate to put it in those terms, but I think that many Americans consume it in those terms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, there is sort of a - I call it a sort of conspiracy theory machine on social media. And we've seen, you know...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Republicans actually crafting their questions based on false information. Is there a danger that these public hearings will just seed conspiracy theories?

STELTER: I think there is a very clear and present danger that we're going to see two narratives that are so competing, that are so different, that there's really no common ground between the two. Democrats are talking about one thing. Republicans are talking about something completely different and, in many cases, based on faulty information.

In many ways, this entire Ukraine scandal dates back to a conspiracy theory that was borne a long time ago about Ukraine and the 2016 presidential election. And I think newsrooms have done a very good job of debunking that theory, but it still holds - of course, in the popular imagination on the right, it holds great value and great worth. It presses journalists into a relatively adversarial role to stand up for what is true and what is verifiable in this environment where there is so much misinformation being spread.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I guess that brings us to the question of, what can the fact-based media do in its coverage to try and represent a true picture of what we're going to see? Is that even possible in this sort of fractured, politicized country?

STELTER: I think the more we zoom out, the better. And I've been really impressed by The Washington Post and NPRs of the world for zooming out, reading thousands of pages of transcripts and trying to zoom out to the big picture that we see from these transcripts by providing links to the primary source material, by providing backgrounders and explainers.

I think we can help educate people on what's actually at stake here and what actually matters because the truth is, most people don't watch most of these hearings live. You know, maybe 20 million, maybe 30 million people will be listening and watching these hearings. People are going to consume these hearings in dozens of different ways. And for the fact-based media, hopefully we can put those basic facts front and center every day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's CNN's Brian Stelter, the host of "Reliable Sources" and their chief media correspondent. Thank you so much.

STELTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.