Polarization and the Media
Rules for covering the Senate trial highlight changes in how we get the news.
The NYT has a piece on the rules that are being instituted for the coverage of Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate: Even C-Span Is Piqued: Senate Puts Limits on Trial Coverage.
Journalists are up in arms about new restrictions on their movement inside the Capitol, which they say will prevent them from easily interviewing lawmakers about the proceedings. The rules, negotiated by Republican Senate leadership, have yet to be written down, causing confusion among reporters and the Capitol Police expected to enforce them.
Even sedate C-Span is aggrieved, calling on the Senate to allow its television crews to document the trial, instead of the government-controlled cameras that — as was the case during Bill Clinton’s trial 21 years ago — will limit what viewers see and hear inside the Senate chamber.
In regards to the cameras, while it would be preferable from a production and documentary point of view for C-Span to run the cameras, I am not surprised by this rule. First, the Republican majority would like to curtail as much drama as possible. Hence, fixed, government-controlled cameras fit the bill. Second, the Senate is still using rules from the Johnson impeachment as the basis of the current proceeding. As such, it is no shock that they are using the TV rules from the 1990s.
“Those cameras operate under very strict guidelines: They show the person who is speaking, and maybe some wide shots,” Terry Murphy, vice president for programming at C-Span, said in an interview. “They can’t show others reacting or listening. Having our own cameras in there would allow us to cover the trial with a much more full picture of what’s going on.”
C-Span wrote to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, in December, formally requesting access. As of Saturday, the network had heard nothing back.
The issues of restrictions of access to Senators by reporters is more troubling if one is interested in thorough coverage. But, of course, that isn’t the goal of the majority and so curtailments are not a surprise.
Along those lines, the following really struck me:
“There’s long been this understanding that we both serve the same people at the end of the day, and that it’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” said Sarah Wire, a Los Angeles Times reporter who leads a committee of congressional correspondents. “Senators want to talk to us because they know we’re communicating their message to their voters back home.”
She is appealing to a paradigm that is breaking down, if not already largely gone. There was a time when yes, Senators needed the local papers, radio stations, and TV channels to be the conduit of their messages back to their constituents. Now there are multiple means to accomplish this.
Not only can Senators use social media for direct connections, the main conduit is clearly more partisan-based media platforms. The dust-up between Senator McSally (R-AZ) and a CNN reporter this week illustrates this.
McSally then took to social media and Fox News to bask in the glow of sticking it to CNN. And, of course, Team Trump responded as well:
One’s mileage may vary on CNN, FNC, McSally, and so forth, but this is all a clear indication of the ongoing breakdown of a shared media narrative. It certainly show the significant severing of the relationship between the local media and members of Congress.
The more we, as citizens and voters, occupy different media universes, the worse it is for democracy. It certainly fuels polarization and tribalism.
In McSally’s case, it also show that she firmly believes her only chance of being elected to the Senate (remember: she lost her election and is serving in an appointed capacity) is to embrace the Trumpist approach.