Commentary: Senate’s media limits aren’t working as intended

Rules meant to dissuade the public from watching haven’t kept viewers from memorable moments.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

Reporters penned off, unable to roam the Senate halls freely. No press photography or recording devices within the chamber. A (nearly) single-focus view of the historic proceedings; offered only by government video cameras, with not even the ubiquitous C-SPAN allowed in to jazz things up.

It’s the ultimate contradiction: The Senate impeachment trial of the media-obsessed president is a remarkably bloodless TV spectacle.

There can be little doubt that these restrictive rules are the brainchild of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has declared himself firmly on the side of President Trump.

And they have an end in mind: Make the trial seem as boring and pallid as possible.

“We are not able to see what is the emotion, what is the state of consciousness of the members of the Senate,” Fox News analyst Chris Wallace commented during a Tuesday broadcast.

To their credit, journalists and news organizations found ways around the restrictions and did their jobs anyway.

The New York Times, among others, sent a sketch artist to capture images, including a senator nodding off only a few hours in.

Punditry continued apace on cable and broadcast news; analysts held forth, lawyers parsed the arguments. Nothing can stem that tide of talking heads.

And innumerable stories got written or broadcast, perhaps with less color than they might have had otherwise, but getting the facts across effectively.

But that doesn’t make the restrictions any more right, as Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., complained in a letter to the Senate sergeant at arms: “To place limitations on the press is to place limitations on the American people’s ability to learn about the character and conduct of their elected leaders.”

Security concerns are said to be behind all of this; a lame argument given that these credentialed reporters go through security checks whenever they enter the Capitol complex.

And it’s hard to understand why more camera angles pose a threat to safety.

No, this isn’t about security at all. It’s about trying to keep at bay a sense of historic importance. It’s about trying to weary and stultify the American public into not caring about what’s happening.

Ever helpful to the Trumpian cause, Steve Doocy made that case Wednesday morning on “Fox & Friends”: “It was unbelievably boring. I don’t know how people can follow it.”

Having the proceedings continue well into the evening hours is another part of the same effort to dull the senses, to file the edges off what could hardly be more significant.

Yet for those watching closely — those who were still tuned in to cable after 9 p.m. ET, long after the networks had resumed their prime-time programming — Tuesday’s proceedings offered worthwhile moments, ones that didn’t need special camera angles to succeed.

Take the “mic drop moment” by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who picked up on the mocking question by Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow in his opening statement: “Why are we here?”

“We are here, sir, because President Trump pressured a foreign government to target an American citizen for political and personal gain,” Jeffries said. “We are here, sir, because President Trump solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election and corrupted our democracy.”

And, he added, we are here to “follow the facts, apply the law, be guided by the Constitution and present the truth to the American people.”

He concluded, “That is why we are here, Mr. Sekulow.” Then he delivered a line, one also familiar to “Hamilton” fans, from late rapper Notorious B.I.G.: “And if you don’t know, now you know.”

Conservative columnist Quin Hillyer of the Washington Examiner called the Jeffries speech a “tour de force.”

Those who had stuck with the first day’s proceedings up to that point — or who had tuned in to take a peek — couldn’t have declared themselves bored.

It wasn’t the only memorable or effective moment. In particular, the video flashbacks of testimony made by diplomats and White House officials — used in House managers’ exhibits — were effective reminders of what’s at stake. (Susan Glasser of the New Yorker noted, with a touch of sarcasm, that these were exclusively devices used by Democrats: “The President’s legal team forgot to bring their slides to the Senate trial. They don’t have video clips for senators to look at either.”)

As the trial begins in earnest, there’s plenty of reason to stay involved and stay focused.

The American public may not be delighted or riveted by the trial, but they’re unavoidably aware; as has been made clear in recent public opinion polls that show more Americans support removing Trump from office than approve of him.

And although removal is extremely unlikely, Americans will remember at least some of what they’ve seen and heard.

That, to most Senate Republicans and Trump, is quite a vexing problem.

And it’s one that can’t be solved by artless camera angles or reporters kept behind ropes.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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