Media & Impeachment: Not For Discussion, Only For Derision

Ocean Beach in San Francisco was abuzz with 1,500 people who showed up to spell out a giant "Impeach Now" with their bodies on April 28, all in the home district of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

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Pelosi made a splash prior to the November 2006 election by saying that a Bush impeachment was "off the table" (Washington Post, 5/12/06). Several scandals later-the Libby conviction, failing Iraq "surge," U.S. Attorneys' purge and missing White House e-mails-people across the nation served up their own impeachment proposals.

But "impeach" is barely in the lexicon of major national media; on the rare occasion it's deployed, it's generally accompanied by derision, dismissal and denial.

Commentators expressed shock when Rosie O'Donnell dared to mention impeachment on the View (3/29/07), asking: "What do you have to do to get impeached in this country? What do you have to do?" She might have added: What do you have to do to get impeachment discussed by the news media?

O'Donnell is not alone in her interest in impeachment. Thirty-nine percent of people favor impeaching the president, reported columnist and pollster Matt Towery in the conservative Townhall. com (5/8/07). InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion found only 55 percent in opposition, and the "biggest news"-42 percent of independents favor impeachment. Former Rep. Bob Barr (R.-Ga.) told Townhall that he and other leaders of the Clinton impeachment had never experienced polling numbers so favorable.

On the weekend of April 28, impeachment rallies raised the issue in 125 locations, including Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, Honolulu and Memphis. On April 20, the Vermont Senate passed 16-9 a nonbinding resolution supporting impeachment proceedings. On March 1, the Washington State Senate held hearings on SJM 8016, which would be a formal request for an investigation of the sort states are allowed to make under the House of Representatives' impeachment procedures. Scores of towns and cities passed resolutions, which, if nonbinding, demonstrate public hunger.

A "red state" mayor, Rocky Anderson of Salt Lake City, crisscrossed the country, calling for impeachment. He explained on the Situation Room (CNN, 3/19/07):

This president, by engaging in such incredible abuses of power, breaches of trust with both the Congress and the American people, and misleading us into this tragic and unbelievable war, the violation of treaties, other international law, our constitution, our own domestic laws, and then his role in heinous human rights abuses: I think all of that together calls for impeachment.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R. Neb.), a powerful member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said "there are ways to deal with a president" (ABC's This Week, 3/25/07), and in April's Esquire magazine, he elaborated, "You can impeach him [Bush], and before this is over, you might see calls for his impeachment." Equally startling were comments of Rep. John P. Murtha (D. Penn.), a close advisor to Pelosi, who volunteered that impeachment is one of the ways Congress can "influence" a president (CBS's Face the Nation, 4/28/07).

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio) called for the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney on April 24. On May 10, Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Bush administration Secretary of State Colin Powell, said on National Public Radio that an impeachment inquiry would be a reasonable thing for Congress to do.

Yet perusers of mainstream media would be hard-pressed to find discussion of any of this-impeachment, it seems, is off the assignment desk.

In the New York Times, a reader might have to scour the obituary of Molly Ivins (2/1/07), where Katherine Q. Seelye noted that the columnist had called for Bush's impeachment. The newspaper has not reviewed any of five recently published books on impeachment of Bush (one co-authored by this writer) or published a single op-ed.

To its credit, the Times published an op-ed (5/3/07) and an editorial (5/12/07) that suggested impeaching U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales following the firing of U.S. attorneys.

But when it comes to the White House, Times news coverage seems to fall under a bargain basement 98-words-or-less rule. Ninety-eight words were allotted to a "National Briefing" about Kucinich's resolution (4/24/07). There was no room to quote Kucinich, but 36 words were devoted to Cheney's spokesperson, who said that the V.P. "is focused on the serious issues facing our nation." In other words, impeachment is not serious.

The Times managed to eke out another 98 words in "National Briefing" on the Vermont vote (4/21/07). The paper found 87 words for the hearings in Washington State, featuring Mayor Anderson (3/2/07), and followed up-not with a policy discussion-but a "love 'im/hate 'im" profile of Anderson (3/22/07). It took the Salt Lake Tribune to run "The Time Has Come for an Impeachment Tutorial" by law professor Ed Firmage (4/27/07), breaking down the history, theory, language and arguments for impeachment.

The tone of coverage was set in a December op-ed by history professor David Greenberg (Washington Post, 12/3/06), who argued that Bush wasn't nearly as bad as Nixon. "Something close to a national consensus emerged" about the need to remove Nixon, Greenberg wrote, and "no such consensus exists for a Bush impeachment."

But the "consensus" on Nixon came after five months of inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee, complete with subpoenas, sworn testimony and a staff of 100. When the committee approved three articles of impeachment on July 27-29, 1974, more than one-third of the members held out for Nixon. A full consensus only emerged days later, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release tapes that contained damning comments by the president, and Nixon resigned.

Since there has been no inquiry into the Bush administration, a comparison is not apt. Nonetheless, the public "consensus" on Bush places him in close proximity to the low regard the public had for Nixon when he departed. A Harris poll taken April 20-23, 2007 put Bush's approval rating at 28 percent. In August 1974, when Nixon resigned, his approval rating was 24 percent, and at that moment of "consensus," he had a lower disapproval rating (66 percent) than Bush had in April (70 percent).

In the same April poll, Cheney rated only a 25 percent approval rating. Yet when Kucinich announced House Resolution 333, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post (4/25/07) encouraged Kucinich to "contact planet Earth," poking fun at his height ("standing perhaps 5 feet 6 inches tall in shoes") and his hair ("weighted by Brylcreem"). Milbank gave not the slightest attention to the substance of the arguments.

The low level of Milbank's discourse was betrayed a week later by fellow columnist Richard Cohen (Washington Post, 5/2/07). "The congressman's case is persuasive," wrote Cohen. While disagreeing on the need for impeachment, Cohen provided solid information about potential high crimes and misdemeanors , and quoted Kucinich's charge that Cheney "purposely manipulated the intelligence process to deceive the citizens and Congress." No one who reads the documents, Cohen wrote, "can fail to conclude that this is a rational serious accusation."

No one ever accused cable television pundits of reading documents. Fox's Sean Hannity, interviewing Kucinich (Hannity & Colmes, 3/22/07), charged that impeachment advocates were damaging the country, a repeated theme among Fox pundits. "Don't you see that as reckless, when our country is at war?" Hannity demanded.

In a show about Vermont towns that passed impeachment resolutions (O'Reilly Factor, 1/30/07), Fox's Bill O'Reilly didn't bother with an opposing view; he booked a politician, Rep. Charles Rangel (D.-N.Y.), who said he doesn't agree with impeachment. O'Reilly rifled the thesaurus for derogatory terms, calling impeachment "loony," "nonsense," "nutty stuff," "foolish" "misguided," "insane," "fringe," "off the chart," without "a shred of evidence," "irresponsible" and, in the pundit mantra, "undermining a sitting president who's in the middle of the war." When Rangel insisted on a right of free expression, O'Reilly turned impeachment talk into a terror threat: "It hurts every one of us because we're diverting attention away from the real problem . . . Islamic terrorists."

CNN (Situation Room, 4/24/07) at least allowed an impeachment proponent to say a few words. Although Kucinich was introduced as a "presidential wannabe," Wolf Blitzer let him outline his case. But Blitzer could not stop himself from resorting to the Fox playbook: "What about the argument, congressman, that this is during a time of war, and that's not a time to go after impeaching a sitting vice president?" Kucinich responded that a conflict was underway during the Nixon years, too, and the deceptions leading to war were key to his resolution.

Three weeks earlier on Situation Room (3/2607), reporter Carol Costello concluded a Reality Check segment by saying, "The only way President Bush can be impeached is if he violates the law." Untrue, according to constitutional scholars, who note that abuse of power and subversion of the constitution are clearly impeachable offenses. Even so, Costello neglected to mention that impeachment proponents argue that Bush has admitted violating federal laws on domestic surveillance (FAIR Action Alert, 3/30/07).

At a time when people need coherent, informative and probing discussions of presidential misconduct and constitutional standards, the major media are simply missing the mark on impeachment.

Cynthia L. Cooper, a former practicing lawyer, is an independent journalist in New York and co-author, with Elizabeth Holtzman, of The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens (Nation Books, 2006).

(c) 2007 FAIR

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