NEW YORK, NY – Millions of Americans likely saw the House’s first day of open impeachment hearings on President Donald Trump on Wednesday. The open question is how many actually heard it.
For six hours, career diplomats George Kent and Bill Taylor sat before Congress and answered questions. But from the immediate media response, it was hard to shake the sense that the proceedings didn’t pierce partisan gridlock or pre-set opinions.
“There was not even the slightest hint that any Republican is taking the evidence that they were given ... and reconsidering,” Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace said at the hearing’s conclusion.
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos admitted, “part of me is wondering, what do facts matter anymore in these debates?”
All three networks — ABC, CBS, NBC — bumped regularly scheduled programming for the hearing. CNN and MSNBC aired the hearings. PBS and Fox broadcasting streamed coverage and left it up to local affiliates to decide whether to carry it.
MSNBC brought a surprise hire into its coverage: George Conway, husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and a prominent social media critic of his wife’s boss.
“I don’t think the Republicans made much headway,” George Conway said. “You saw some non-partisan professionals tell us the facts, and the facts were quite damning.”
The network played it coy about Conway’s appearance, however. He was identified onscreen as a “conservative attorney” and anchor Brian Williams said it was, “yes, that George Conway.” But MSNBC never explicitly said who Conway’s wife worked for.
Former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus was part of CBS’ coverage, leading to one blunt exchange with anchor Norah O’Donnell.
“Presidents don’t get impeached because they acted inappropriately,” Priebus said. “Presidents get impeached because they conducted themselves in such a way that they committed a high crime or misdemeanor as outlined under the Constitution.”
Retorted O’Donnell: “I think Bill Clinton was impeached for acting inappropriately.”
On Fox, Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who made the case for Clinton’s impeachment, appeared as an analyst. He said before the testimony that a bribery charge against Trump will “seem like a stretch” to the public. During one break, he noted that Trump eventually released the withheld aid to the Ukraine that is a central point of the Democrats’ case.
That led Wallace to point out that the aid was released two days after a whistleblower revealed it was being held up.
Wallace said that Taylor “was a very impressive witness and was very damaging to the president.”
And Taylor may have a career in broadcasting: Wallace said he sounded like CBS News legend Edward R. Murrow, while Stephanopoulos said, “I hear the echoes of Walter Cronkite.”
Viewers who kept the sound turned down had different experiences depending on where they tuned in. While CBS, for example, did little more than identify the participants through its onscreen chyrons, ABC and CNN actively used the screen to sum up testimony. For instance, a CNN chyron quoted Taylor: “I Told Pompeo I Would Have to Resign if US Policy of Support for Ukraine were to Change.”
Fox, meanwhile, did not use chyrons to offer highlights of the testimony but did run a long message string about former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and his involvement in the Ukraine.
Fox also identified Taylor onscreen by saying: “President Trump dismissed Taylor as a never-Trumper.”
A few hours later, California Rep. Eric Swalwell asked Taylor in the hearing, “Are you a never-Trumper?”
“No, sir,” he replied.
Prominent news websites summed up their view of the day. The lead headline on the New York Times’ site at one point was, “Impeachment Testimony: ‘Trump Cares More About the Investigation of Biden.’” The Washington Post bannered: “New Testimony ties Trump more directly to Ukraine pressure.”
The headline on Fox’s website was “Bombshell or Hearsay? Impeachment Hearing sees Claim Trump Asked of ‘Investigations,’ GOP decries ‘low-rent’ Russian Sequel.”
Partisan sites had their own takes. The conservative site Redstate’s main headline was “Ambassador Bill Taylor Pushes a Farcical Tale of an Overheard Phone Call and the Media Proclaims it as a ‘Bombshell.’” On the liberal Talking Points Memo, it was “In Impeachment Surprise, Taylor Unveils New Evidence Directly Implicating Trump.”
Partisans also pushed out favorite moments online. Republicans emphasized clips of attacking GOP lawmakers Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes. For Democrats, a favorite came when Taylor, in response to a question by the GOP counsel, said the back-channel of diplomacy was “not as outlandish as it could be.”
One of former President Barack Obama’s speechwriters, Jon Favreau, tweeted that it could make for a potential campaign slogan: “Trump 2020: Not as Outlandish as it Could be.”
This story has been corrected to show Kellyanne Conway’s title is White House counselor.