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What If Local Reporters Covered The Impeachment Hearings?

Nov 21, 2019

 

Credit Photo by: Nathan J. Fish

    Commentary: What if local reporters were brought in to help cover the impeachment hearings?

Not to slight the expertise of seasoned Capitol Hill journalists, but while digesting coverage of the first public hearings into the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump, my attention was drawn to the D.C. media bubble.

For someone who has been following developments about President Trump’s communications with the Ukrainian president, the best coverage might have been simply to watch or listen without commentary.

 

For those who are not glued to political coverage, yet concerned about the potential impeachment and removal of a president, analytical stories — the “what to expect” and “takeaway” stories, the video recaps with background information, the panel discussions and excerpts heard on public radio — are helpful, as long as they are good.

There were also some stunningly bad stories published on major platforms that prompted this question: What audience is this story is addressing? When you read or watch, do you feel the reporting speaks to you as a news consumer, or do you get the feeling the writer is speaking to other journalists? Or perhaps to the same powerful people they are covering?

Some reportage assessed the House Intelligence Committee's interviews of three career diplomats under oath as a media spectacle and assessed them on that basis rather than deal with any of the substance.

A report by MSNBC complained that the first two witnesses “lacked the pizazz necessary to capture public attention” (they even misspelled pizzazz) in a story treating the hearing as a sporting match. The hearing was “substantive, but it wasn’t dramatic,” and the story concluded that “there wasn't much either side could grab onto.”

That writer wasn’t talking to you.

A widely criticized report by Reuters, with two reporters on its byline and a third contributing, called the proceedings “staid” and “dull,” and found little to report about what was presented.

“Democratic lawmakers tried their hand at reality television with mixed results on Wednesday,” they wrote, “as they presented arguments to the American public for the impeachment of a former star of the genre, Donald Trump.”

For anyone interested in the substance, there was plenty of “pizzazz,” yet some career reporters found nothing of interest in testimony during which we learned of another phone call, and a new witness claiming to have heard the president ask about Ukraine’s willingness to investigate a domestic political rival; nor in the witnesses’ vivid descriptions of conditions in Ukraine, their discovery of an informal diplomatic back-channel working at odds with official U.S. policy or their testimony to the damage done to the state department during the Trump administration; nor, finally, in how Republicans on that committee questioned the witnesses and challenged the proceeding itself.

As I witnessed veteran journalists file stories describing the possible impeachment of a U.S. president as boring — like students who file term papers on the topic of not knowing what to write about, written on the eve of the due date — I thought of local reporters who cover public meetings.

Sometimes it is tough to write entertaining stories about, say, water policy, planning and zoning, or budgeting that are also accurate and informative; but that’s the job, and many manage it.

They succeed when they write directly for their community.

Let’s send a competent yet obscure small-town government reporter — as endangered as that species is — to cover the impeachment hearings as if writing for their local papers, with a sense of their community's questions and concerns.

Better yet, send a few. Comparing their stories would be fascinating and provide an alternative to the feedback loop commingling large media organizations with the elites they cover.