Covering impeachment: Senate rules test press duty to inform

Andrew Harnik/AP
Reporters sit on the floor in a crowded room where House Democrats hold a news conference to unveil articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, Dec. 10, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump started off with a straitjacket of rules on communications. No cellphones, no talking allowed for senators in the chamber. Media were confined in roped-off pens at the Senate exits.

Many Democratic senators have been sharing their views of the day’s events in conversational videos that they post to Twitter, speaking directly to constituents. “Yesterday was bananas,” says Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California, in a Twitter video. In a brief interview later, she explains the videos are meant to “keep people engaged.”

Why We Wrote This

The stringent crackdown on reporters covering the impeachment trial is a marked departure from the usual open nature of Capitol Hill. Reporters and politicians are persevering, but how do those limits affect Americans’ understanding of a historical event?

Democrats want voters to be invested in the impeachment process, and the behind-the-scenes video strategy fits with today’s reality TV ethos. 

But these individual takes are only each lawmaker’s opinion. They don’t give Americans the full picture of this historic trial, however partisan it may be. Which is why journalists have objected so strenuously to the restrictions imposed on them.

“I don’t want this to sound just like reporters whining,” says Sarah Wire, chair of the Standing Committee of Correspondents on the Hill. “We have a responsibility to the American people, to our readers and to viewers, and that’s my concern.”

The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump started off with a straitjacket of rules, particularly on communications. No cellphones, no talking allowed for senators in the chamber. For reporters, no “walk and talk” interviews with senators in the hallways. Instead, the media were to be confined to roped-off pens at the Senate exits.

But like water flowing downhill, it’s hard to stop lawmakers and media from finding each other, or senators from getting their message out.

“Any political figure that has something to say will find a way to say it. If they want the press to find them, they will be found,” says Mo Elleithee, former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, and now at Georgetown University.

Why We Wrote This

The stringent crackdown on reporters covering the impeachment trial is a marked departure from the usual open nature of Capitol Hill. Reporters and politicians are persevering, but how do those limits affect Americans’ understanding of a historical event?

During an afternoon break on Wednesday, at least seven senators stopped to talk with reporters penned behind ropes and stanchions near a Senate exit. Democratic presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota advised her Republican colleagues to “start acting like a juror” and allow witnesses in the trial. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas declared “nothing new” after more than two hours of opening arguments. 

The arguments were a “tour de force!” responded Minority Leader Charles Schumer, waiting for Senator Cornyn to finish so he could have his say. The New Yorker made sure to repeat his message in front of television cameras and other media at a stakeout near the Senate basement.

Senators from both sides are talking informally with reporters in these locations and elsewhere, as well as holding press conferences and doing television interviews. Most notably, many are filing daily updates on Twitter, including sharing tips on how they are enduring hours on end of presentations.

Food and drink other than water (plain or fizzy) or milk (originally for health reasons) are forbidden in the chamber. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, joked on Twitter that “milk is the big news today,” as his seatmate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, went for the white stuff. He also shared an impeachment survival trick: “During the short breaks, unwrap a few hard candies and put them in your desk drawer. That way you avoid the noise of unwrapping them when you sneak one mid-trial.”

Many Democrats have been sharing their views of the day’s events in brief, conversational videos that they post to Twitter, speaking directly to constituents. “It was a long, long day and night last night,” started out Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, the most endangered Democrat in the Senate, on Wednesday.

“Yesterday was bananas,” said Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a Democratic presidential candidate, in another Twitter video. In a brief interview later, she explains that the videos are meant to “keep people engaged, and to remind them that they are part of this process ... and what it’s really like.”

The video strategy fits with today’s reality TV ethos, says Mr. Elleithee, where people want to see more than fixed cameras focused on the Senate chamber. Democrats want voters to be invested in the impeachment process, and they are hoping to speak to a broader electorate that includes independents.

Fewer Republicans have been doing speak-to-camera videos. But they’re still finding ways to get their messages out. 

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has been tweeting out a daily diary of sorts. “House began presenting their case over course of 8 hours,” he wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “Offered detailed timeline of the events underpinning their case. We heard recorded testimony of witnesses, supplemented by transcripts & evidence gathered from press & social media. Will continue tomorrow.”

These individual takes, of course, are only each lawmaker’s opinion. They aren’t reported pieces with comments from both sides and relevant context. They don’t give Americans the full picture of this historic trial, however partisan it may be.

Which is why journalists have objected so strenuously to the restrictions imposed on them by the Senate Republican leadership and the sergeant-at-arms.

Under normal circumstances, the Hill is the most accessible reporting spot on government in Washington. A hard congressional pass allows reporters to roam freely in the corridors of the Capitol and its office buildings. During the trial, senators can visit a pen – if they choose. But reporters aren’t able to find other viewpoints when they’re locked into a few square feet for 30 minutes or an hour during a break.

Lawmakers can jump over the media, but “what we say has more credibility, I would hope,” says veteran New York Times reporter Carl Hulse. “We’re serving a real purpose here, trying to sort out a pretty confusing mess that a lot of people don’t understand.” 

The restrictions have forced news organizations to adjust, taking more time to try to reach senators by phone and adding reporters to be in more places to try to catch them. That’s doable for a news giant like The New York Times, but it’s harder for smaller outlets.

Take the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It has one reporter on the Hill, Daniel Moore. “The restrictions make it really difficult,” he says, preventing him from getting “anything meaningful” from either of the senators he covers from the swing state of Pennsylvania – Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey.

As of Day 3 of the trial, Mr. Moore had not been able to reach either senator during a break or on the phone. Normally, he’s got great access, he says, but in this case he has had to rely on the senators’ public comments.

Senator Toomey, who won his last race by a close margin, has offered up very little. When swarmed by reporters as he entered the Capitol’s internal subway, the senator commented only that the candy in the Senate cloakroom was running low.

Mr. Moore had better success on Thursday, speaking with Senator Casey on a phone press conference for Pennsylvania reporters, and gleaning some insight on Senator Toomey’s views from a television interview.

“I don’t want this to sound just like reporters whining,” says Sarah Wire, who is chair of the Standing Committee of Correspondents on the Hill. “We have a responsibility to the American people, to our readers and to viewers, and that’s my concern.”

Still, since the trial started, things have loosened up a bit – both on the Senate floor and with journalists. Senators are no longer glued to their seats, but are disappearing for a moment (or quite a bit longer). They’re standing or stretching their legs at the back of the chamber. They can be seen munching on candy bars and chewing gum. Some even say they welcome being untethered from their cellphones.

Reporters are seeing fewer instances of Capitol police interrupting interviews mid-conversation, according to Ms. Wire, who writes for the Los Angeles Times. They’re also discovering other places to intercept senators.

“That’s what we do for a living,” she says. During the Clinton impeachment, reporters were not allowed on the same floor as the Senate chamber, which is how the underground stakeout by the subway cars got started, she explains. And indeed, during that five-week trial, restrictions on journalists eased.

“That trial went on for a very long time,” says Mr. Hulse. “It’s very hard to sustain that level of red alert.”

Staff writer Timmy Broderick contributed to this story.

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