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Stop Comparing the Trump Impeachment Probe to Watergate

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I’m old enough to remember watching the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, as a teenaged Nixon-hater, raised that way by my liberal, devout Catholic, Nixon-loathing father. I can still be obsessive about Watergate trivia. But too much of our media is using the outcome of that inspiring process—Nixon’s resignation—to impeach, so to speak, the Democrats’ handling of Donald Trump’s many high crimes and misdemeanors, after Day One of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry.

The New York Times’s Peter Baker harkens back to that triumph of democracy almost a half-century ago to find the first hearing a little disappointing: “While major television networks broke into regular programming to carry it live, there was little sense of a riveted country putting everything aside to watch à la Watergate.” It’s worth remembering that the Times’s first-day, front-page coverage of the Senate hearings in May 1973 carried the headline: “A Low-Key Beginning Before A Rapt Audience.”

Is all the looking backward it because it’s too scary to look forward? My objection isn’t to parallels between the abuses involved in Watergate and the Ukraine scandal, because they exist, but to the expectations of what Democrats ought to do, and how, and jumping to the conclusion that they’re botching it. They may be, but fetishizing the Watergate investigations ignores how much media, politics and the GOP have changed in the intervening 45 years. 

Just to quickly dispense with Baker: C’mon, dude. We are no longer a country that is “riveted” by anything, or gathers around the TV for much beyond the Super Bowl, and even that spectacle’s ratings are in sharp decline. In 1974 we had three dominant networks; now, even beyond the 24-hour cable networks, we have an infinite media universe competing for our attention, as well as ideological media silos that “rivet” us with different stories, and sometimes different facts.

Mid-day Wednesday, “Walter Cronkite” began trending on Twitter, because people heard the voice of the late, sainted CBS anchor, once “the most trusted man in America,” in Ukraine Special Envoy Bill Taylor’s soothing, authoritative tone. That’s nice. And sad. Walter Cronkite is still dead. And if he wasn’t, today’s media might kill him. 

Cronkite’s two short Watergate special reports in October 1972, totaling 20-plus minutes, are widely credited with forcing the nation to pay attention to the shadowy, complex and still-unspooling scandal. In an admiring NPR Cronkite obit in 2009, Alicia Shepard confessed to watching both broadcasts and concluding: “I can safely say that CBS would never run that story today. Frankly, it was far too complicated — and even boring. It was difficult to figure out what Cronkite was talking about.” She’s no doubt right. And despite all the Cronkite nostalgia on Twitter, the media found his vocal doppelganger, Taylor, unconvincing. In a headline that should go down in history, an NBC News analysis complained that Taylor’s testimony, and the entire day, lacked “pizzazz.”

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