Impeachment Inquiry Will Pose Historic Challenge for Beltway Media

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday that Democrats would open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump over reports that he pressured the Ukrainian president over the phone to investigate a political opponent.

A whistleblower from within the intelligence community submitted a formal complaint that is believed to detail a sustained effort by Trump to convince the Ukrainian government to investigate the son of former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Today, the White House released a memo claiming to be a rough transcript of a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the revelations are breathtaking.

Now, after months of impeachment consternation, almost all House Democrats have rallied behind the call to at least begin an impeachment investigation.

This historic moment marks the first serious presidential impeachment effort since 1998. If successful, Trump will become the third president ever impeached by the House of Representatives. 

Political reporters are now tasked with covering one of the most consequential news events in a generation. The effort by the House will be the first full impeachment inquiry in the fractured digital media landscape that has brought national politics to new territory for hyperpartisan news, analysis-driven coverage and reporting-by-tweet. 

What’s more, journalists will be covering the impeachment of a president who regularly calls the news media the “enemy of the people,” openly makes false statements, and has used his executive authority to stymie oversight. 

Some news outlets have already been criticized for their coverage. The critics point to what they call “both-sides” journalism, in which news outlets draw false equivalences in an effort to appear balanced and fair. As Atlantic Magazine correspondent James Fallows wrote this week: 

“To be ‘fair’ in covering [the President] is to be unfair—to the truth, to history, to the readers, to the national interest, to any concept of journalistic purpose. The stuffy way to put this problem is ‘false equivalence.’ The casual way to put it is ‘But what about her emails?'”

After NPR ran a story with the headline “What’s the Ukraine Story About? Trump Says It’s Biden. Democrats Say It’s Trump,” Media Matters for America editor Parker Molloy tweeted: “We live in Both Sides hell.”

Meanwhile, Monika Bauerlein, CEO of left-leaning news site Mother Jones, wrote an editorial last year decrying mainstream coverage of the Trump presidency as adopting the “View From Nowhere,” in which reporters overcompensate for their fear of being accused of bias by being unscrupulous in their coverage:

“Fairness and accuracy are not served by pretending to have no point of view. They are served by acknowledging where you’re coming from and then being rigorous about following the facts where they lead.”

Despite this criticism, it was sharp reporting that brought the whistleblower story to the fore in the first place.

Last Wednesday, The Washington Post was the first to break that the whistleblower complaint pertained to communications between the President and a foreign leader. The next day, The New York Times reported that the complaint involved an “unspecified commitment to a foreign leader” and that “at least part of the allegation deals with Ukraine.” The Wall Street Journal published original reporting Saturday that Trump urged Zelensky eight different times to work with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to investigate Biden’s family. And on Monday, White House correspondents at The Post broke the news that the President made an official order to withhold $400 million in military aid for Ukraine just a week before his phone call with Zelensky. 

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s show on Thursday also made waves when Cuomo’s dogged questioning, mixed with Rudy Giuliani’s propensity to make things worse for his client, led to a truly spectacular admission on the part of Giuliani. 

It’s undeniable that mainstream news outlets have been central to exposing the truth in the Trump-Ukraine story, and they will continue to be instrumental in fact-finding during the impeachment process. However, journalists are still facing unprecedented times that will require constant self-scrutiny and steady editorial oversight to cut through the inevitable noise.

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