Made for TV. Made for punditry. Let’s all plumb the greater meaning of whether the senator from Vermont really once told the senator from Massachusetts that he didn’t think a woman could be elected president.
And while this is grounded in an important issue (ingrained sexism in American culture and politics), there were matters of greater significance going on.
There was compelling new evidence that President Trump knew everything about the effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election, and to push an American diplomat out of the way.
This was revealed in documents and text messages and in blockbuster interviews, first with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and later with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. It was stunning stuff, particularly in the context of Trump’s impeachment and a Senate trial in which most Republican senators, according to their leadership, already have their minds made up.
“This is . . . like if Watergate burglars gave [an] interview to Walter Cronkite in Jan 1974 and detailed the Nixon criminal enterprise,” tweeted the journalist and author Eric Boehlert about Maddow’s interview with Lev Parnas, the Soviet-born businessman who played a key role in the pressure campaign.
It was a much, much bigger deal than the Warren-Sanders dust-up.
But these developments were presented as roughly equal, or at least in the same general category of emphasis, on TV newscasts and Sunday talk shows, as if to say, “Here’s a couple of Washington stories about politicians fighting with each other . . . .”
A sense of proportion — what's significant and what's trivial — seems strangely missing.
What truly deserves our all-out attention and outrage? What’s the small stuff?
Numbed by the barrage of news, dazzled by distraction, many citizens don’t seem to know anymore.
And news sources, particularly TV and social media, show little ability or desire to help. (As Pew Research in late 2018 revealed, TV is still the main way that all Americans get their news; younger people increasingly rely on social media; and newspapers are fading by the day as a news source.)
Part of the problem is that the Ukraine story is relatively complicated. The cast of characters is hard to keep track of.
Lev Parnas? Marie Yovanovitch? And now (a new name to emerge this week), Robert Hyde, who may have been illegally tracking the American ambassador?
It’s unlikely that most Americans would have a clue who they are.
If you doubt that, you ought to know that, in a “Jeopardy!” episode aired a few days ago, three contestants were shown a photo and given a description of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.).
A librarian, a tutor and an English professor, they all looked baffled as they failed to come up with his name.
“Even three really smart people are not paying close enough attention to the impeachment circus to recognize the face of one of its ringleaders,” was how writer Karen Townsend put it on the website Hotair.
The widespread lack of news literacy and basic civics is something that Trump depends upon. (“I love the poorly educated,” he crowed in early 2016 after winning the Nevada primary.) Or as Ohio-based columnist Connie Schultz wrote recently: “Nothing scares Trump more than informed voters.”
The mainstream news media may not see the obligation to break through citizens’ lack of knowledge.
They may not see their role as educating, or getting across what’s important but complicated in an understandable, clear way.
It’s easier — and probably more profitable — to play to people’s prejudices or lowest instincts.
“We want a conflict because we too often see politics as a sporting event,” said Walter Shapiro, who is covering his 11th presidential campaign, this time for the New Republic, and teaches a politics-and-media course at Yale.
Shapiro told me that he watched reporters in the spin room after the Democratic debate in Des Moines last week sharing video of Warren supposedly refusing to shake Sanders’s hand.
“It was a nothing story,” he told me, but useful to journalists because it fit in with their preexisting story line.
Focused on personality wars, the Democratic debates (and the media generally) have looked away from the pressing, if unsexy, subject of poverty in America, as Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, noted in an email to me this week — “even as a third of all Americans live under or near the poverty line.”
Will anything change next week as the impeachment trial moves forward in the Senate?
Or will some Republican senators’ apparent reluctance to consider evidence or call witnesses be depicted as just more political wrangling? Another political food fight, evidence of nothing but that catchall: partisanship.
The news media is all too predictable, doing things the same old way from campaign to campaign, from scandal to scandal.
But we exist now in a different context: With democratic norms on the brink, the public desperately needs us to do much, much better.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan