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The Theater Critics

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Murc’s Law all the way down:

The proceedings got to the very core of what the office of the presidency is supposed to be about in our country. It was the stuff of history. But to hear Reuters and NBC tell it, one of the major faults of the hearing was that it simply lacked pizzazz.

Both outlets were roundly dragged for posting news analysis stories that focused on the entertainment value (or purported lack thereof) of the hearing. NBC’s piece, authored by Jonathan Allen, claimed that the hearing “lacked the pizazz necessary to capture public attention” — a turn of phrase that quickly became a meme and echoed the talking points Trump family members and administration officials used.

Meanwhile, Reuters’ Jeff Mason and Patricia Zengerle wrote that the hearing was “dull” and lacked “bang.”

Mason and Zengerle’s lede bizarrely compared the impeachment hearing to reality television.

“Democratic lawmakers tried their hand at reality television with mixed results on Wednesday as they presented arguments to the American public for the impeachment of a former star of the genre, Donald Trump,” it said. (In a similar vein, NBC’s piece said the hearing “felt more like the dress rehearsal for a serious one-act play than the opening night of a hit Broadway musical.”)

That sort of framing isn’t just a self-fulfilling analysis signaling to prospective news consumers that they can safely tune out the unexciting impeachment hearings. It’s also, as anyone who remembers lengthy cable news shots of Trump’s empty podium can attest, the exact sort of fixation on entertainment and optics over substance that played a key role in helping Trump win in 2016 in the first place. But if you hoped that major outlets learned something from that experience, the framing of the NBC and Reuters dispatches about the first public impeachment hearing was disappointing.

Fox News’s coverage, predictably, was even worse. While some of its programming also focused on how purportedly boring the first hearing was, Hannity guest and Trump favorite Mark Levin trashed Kent and Taylor as “two homeless guys.” Not to be outdone, a guest on Tucker Carlson’s show — former State Department adviser Christian Whiton — said Kent and Taylor “looked like people who sat by themselves at recess.”

The political press seems assured that they did a bang-up job in 2016, so expect plenty more of this for the 80 years between now and November 2020.

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