So, is the media coverage pointless? Are journalists merely shouting into the void?
Columnist Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times offered a name Wednesday for one aspect of what’s happening before our eyes.
Responding to the absurd statement of Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) — “there are no set facts here” — she said it summed up the long-term Republican strategy: “epistemological nihilism.”
In other words, there can be no knowledge and no meaning, so don’t even bother.
It brings to mind Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s coinage of the infamous term “alternative facts” early in the administration. Or Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes’s on-air comment in 2016: “There is no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”
That strategy runs in direct opposition to what journalism is supposed to be all about: establishing facts and knowledge so that citizens can make decisions, armed with what Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
How should journalists respond to the stalemate, other than to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing?
The hint of a possible solution appears in the tracking of public opinion on impeachment at Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com, under the headline, “Plenty Of People Are Persuadable On Impeachment.”
A paradox arises herein, and a weird one, at that. There’s a group the trackers call “less-certain Republicans” — about 12 percent of the sample, not huge but given the even split in support for impeachment, mighty important.
Here’s the rub: This group is persuadable, but not particularly interested:
“There’s one big hurdle for anyone looking to persuade this group . . . they’re not following developments in the impeachment inquiry very closely,” the site reported. “Only 34 percent of people who aren’t as certain about their stance on impeachment are following the process somewhat or very closely, compared with 66 percent of respondents who are more certain.”
That much larger group, though, seems to be following the hearings and absorbing the media coverage, largely to deepen their own confirmation bias.
Rather than providing a catering service for the echo chambers, how might journalism address this important group?
(Never doubt that public opinion matters right now: In many ways, it’s what the hearings are all about, as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both could have told you.)
Columbia University journalism professor Bill Grueskin suggests the movie-trailer approach.
In a message, he explains: “Studios spend a $1 million or more on a trailer, because they know it’s essential to boil down the essentials of the film — explaining but not giving away the plot, providing a quick but intense insight into the characters, setting the scene with vivid imagery — to entice people to come back to the theatre a month later for the full movie.”
Similarly, most people (especially the less convinced or more persuadable) will never watch seven hours in a row of congressional testimony, but, as he notes, “many of them would be open to a targeted, well-informed ‘trailer’ approach that is cogently told.”
In some ways, that’s what the nightly newscasts on the three major broadcast networks attempt to do: boil the complex down to a few minutes.
But that audience, although still substantial — more than 20 million people on average per night — certainly doesn’t include everyone. And far too often, those broadcasts fall prey to false equivalency: This side said this, and this side said that, and we don’t want to make anyone mad, so we’ve got to cut to a commercial now.
With that in mind, I would also very much like to see one other major change: a moratorium on the reflexive use of the word “partisan.”
Mainstream journalists love that word, because it lets them off the hook: We aren’t taking sides, not us! The country is divided, and we can’t help it.
Just uttering the word “partisan” is media Prozac: It soothes journalists’ angst about not being perceived as inoffensively neutral.
It’s too easy, and too often an easy coverup for, yes, epistemological nihilism: The notion that there are no facts, so let’s not bother to try establishing them.
But here’s the thing: There are facts. There is truth. We do live in a country that abides by laws and a Constitution, and nobody ought to be above them.
Despite the hardened positions, some members of the public are still uncertain. Some are persuadable, and yes, it matters.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s the job of American journalism in this moment to get serious about trying to reach these citizens.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan