Media filters set current impeachment hearings apart

NEW YORK (AP) — Millions of Americans are choosing to experience the impeachment hearings through media filters that depict the proceedings as either a worthless sham or like Christmas in November.

That’s the chief difference between now and the two other times in the modern era when a presidential impeachment was explored, and will likely be a major factor in determining whether the hearings change anyone’s minds about President Donald Trump.

Fox News Channel was the favorite network of the 13.8 million Americans who watched Wednesday’s opening of the House hearing on television. The audiences for each of Fox’s prime-time opinion hosts — Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — were larger that evening than the 2.9 million people who watched the network during the day, the Nielsen company said.

On MSNBC, a favorite of liberals in the same way many conservatives love Fox, Rachel Maddow’s audience beat the network’s live hearing coverage.

“Today you can pick the information source that is going to talk to you and what you’d like to believe and that’s the way the audience has been dividing themselves,” said Thomas Patterson, who teaches about government and the press at Harvard University and is the author of “How America Lost its Mind,” about the nation’s polarization.

By contrast, the chief option for working Americans who wanted to follow the impeachment case against President Richard Nixon in the 1970s was a rerun of the day’s hearing that aired in prime time on PBS. This year, PBS is streaming a rerun of the Trump hearing. A rerun has also been available on the HLN network.

CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC did not exist in the 1970s, and while CNN was in its adolescence, the other networks were in their infancy during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s. The same is true of an online partisan infrastructure.

Today they are the dominant cable networks and each offered lively takes from their perspectives on Wednesday. On Fox, it was labeled a snooze, even though viewers were interested: Fox had its third-highest audience of the year.

Hannity described the hearing as “a lousy day for the corrupt, do-nothing-for-three-years extreme socialist Democrats and their top allies, known as the media mob.”

“This has all the box office mojo of ‘Grease 2,’” Ingraham said.

The whole premise of the impeachment case is “just too dumb not to hurt” Democrats, Carlson said.

When going over specifics from the hearing, the hosts emphasized exchanges featuring Republican members of the committee, such as the brief pause after Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas asked diplomats William Taylor and George Kent about whether they had seen impeachable behavior from Trump.

“Crickets!” Hannity said.

Before the clip was cut off, however, Taylor was seen soundlessly starting to deliver an answer into his microphone. Taylor testified that it was up to lawmakers to decide what behavior is impeachable.

Different clips, depending on how they looked politically, were popular on different corners of the Internet and during the prime-time opinion lineup at MSNBC. One moment that received multiple plays came when Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont suggested, to some laughter, that Trump testify before Congress.

Host Chris Hayes said the hearing was historic, and gave citizens a fuller picture of Trump’s alleged abuse of power. An hour later, Maddow was also excited to run through highlights.

“I learned new facts and I heard interesting new arguments and perspectives I had never heard before that I felt deepened my perspective on something I was already obsessed with,” she said.

The two outlooks reminded Harvard’s Patterson of the 1992 book, “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.”

“Republicans and Democrats have such different views of reality, they might as well be on different planets,” he said.

Viewers seem to be getting used to it. A poll released this week from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about 6 in 10 Americans say they regularly see conflicting reports about the same set of facts from different sources. Nearly half of Americans say that it’s difficult to know if they information they see is true.

The hunger for straightforward summaries hasn’t disappeared. Evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC routinely reach more than 20 million viewers a night cumulatively, and all gave newsy accounts of the day’s hearings. Measurements aren’t available yet of how many people watched Wednesday’s hearing online through a side computer screen at work, and what feeds they used.

Yet the appeal of seeing news through specific filters was evident in a way that would have seemed unthinkable just 20 years ago.

The two networks seen as appealing to specific points of view, Fox News and MSNBC, were more popular Wednesday than the traditional network news divisions of ABC, CBS and NBC, Nielsen said.