By:
February 10, 2021

The impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump will go forward. United States senators voted Tuesday that the trial is constitutional. Today, we start hearing the arguments and defense over whether or not Trump incited the mob that raided the Capitol on Jan. 6.

But does it even matter?

During Tuesday’s impeachment trial coverage on NBC, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt asked a good question of NBC News political director Chuck Todd. Holt asked: What’s the point of all this if we already know that the Senate is unlikely to convict Trump?

Todd said, “Well, I understand that if we assume we do know the outcome, but that’s an assumption I think we need to be careful of.”

Todd explained that the senators who will be voting on this were at the Capitol the day of the insurrection.

“We don’t know what it’s going to be like for those senators,” Todd said. “They have their own memories of what happened that day. And then they are going to see video of things they didn’t realize were happening simultaneously, maybe just 100 feet away or 50 feet away that just missed them.”

In fact, that’s exactly what happened. Tuesday’s trial opened with a deeply disturbing video of insurrectionists storming the Capitol. As CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell put it: “This trial takes place at the scene of the crime.”

CBS News congressional correspondent Kris Van Cleave said, “A month has passed, and in some ways, the memory dims a little bit. When you see it again at the start of the trial, it had an impact on the senators inside that room, and I think it had an impact on many of us that were here that day watching it as it all comes back.”

Which is why Todd thinks it might not be a slam dunk that Republican senators will vote to acquit Trump

“These are still human beings,” Todd said. “They’re not just political potted plants. Now they may end up voting as if they are potted plants that are blue and red and they just vote their team color. But I don’t think we should just jump right there.”

Then again, after Tuesday’s vote, in which only six Republicans voted that the trial was constitutional, it’s hard to see a scenario in which enough Republicans will side with the Democrats in convicting Trump.

Speaking of which

Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger from Illinois, in an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, urged his fellow Republicans to convict Trump in a piece titled, “My Fellow Republicans, Convicting Trump is Necessary to Save America.”

Kinzinger wrote, “But this isn’t a waste of time. It’s a matter of accountability. If the GOP doesn’t take a stand, the chaos of the past few months, and the past four years, could quickly return. The future of our party and our country depends on confronting what happened — so it doesn’t happen again.”

He added, “I firmly believe the majority of Americans — Republican, Democrat, independent, you name it — reject the madness of the past four years. But we’ll never move forward by ignoring what happened or refusing to hold accountable those responsible. That will embolden the few who led us here and dishearten the many who know America is better than this. It will make it more likely that we see more anger, violence and chaos in the years ahead.”

Most powerful moment

House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) pauses as he speaks during the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. (Senate Television via AP)

The most powerful and emotional moment during Tuesday’s impeachment trial was something said by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who is leading the impeachment case against Trump. In his opening statements, he mentioned a conversation he had with his daughter after the events on Jan. 6.

Raskin said, “I told her how sorry I was. And I promised her that it would not be like this again the next time that she came back to the Capitol with me. And you know what she said? She said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to come back to the Capitol.’”

With that, Raskin briefly broke down. He then added, “Of all the terrible, brutal things I saw and I heard on that day, and since then, that one hit me the hardest. That and watching someone use an American flagpole, the flag still on it, to spear and pummel one of our police officers — ruthlessly, mercilessly. Tortured by a pole with a flag on it that he was defending with his very life. People died that day.”

NBC reporter Kasie Hunt said when Raskin relayed his story, “There was utter silence in the Senate chamber. Complete, dead silence.”

What was that?

Bruce Castor, an attorney for former President Donald Trump, speaks during the impeachment trial on Tuesday. (Senate Television via AP)

Trump impeachment lawyer Bruce Castor apparently had a bad day at work. Even in the midst of his opening statement, he was skewered on social media.

Veteran journalist Dan Rather tweeted, “I’ve seen more clarity in a mud puddle.”

CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez tweeted, “I’m no lawyer, but not even a cat filter could save Bruce Castor right now.”

Even pro-Trump outlets like Newsmax questioned Castor’s job. Newsmax did something rare: It broke into Castor’s remarks just so attorney Alan Dershowitz, who was on Trump’s first impeachment defense team, could blast him.

Dershowitz said, “There is no argument. I have no idea what he’s doing. I have no idea why he’s saying what he’s saying!”

He went on to say, “Maybe he’ll bring it home, but right now, it does not appear to me to be effective advocacy. He may know the senators better than I do. Maybe they want to be buttered up. Maybe they want to be told what great people they are and how he knows two senators. But, boy, it’s not the kind of argument I would have made, I have to tell you that.”

Newsmax anchor Bob Sellers, almost comically, said, “Is he forgetting that this is on TV? You’re not just playing to the senators. You’re playing to a lot of people in their living rooms.”

Also on trial

Donald Trump isn’t the only one on trial this week. So is the conservative media, according to this piece from The New York Times’ Giovanni Russonello.

Russonello writes that Trump, who continually pushed the baseless allegation that the election was stolen from him, could face consequences for his role in stirring up the mob that raided the Capitol. But, he writes, “This might ultimately have a much bigger impact on the future of American politics than anything that happens to Mr. Trump as an individual.”

Trump pushed disinformation, and places such as Fox News, Newsmax and One America News helped him to amplify those lies. But now people are taking action. For example, Smartmatic, the election technology company, has filed a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News Media and three on-air personalities. (Fox is standing by its coverage and has filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.)

Mark McKinnon, a longtime political strategist and co-host of the Showtime political series “The Circus,” told Russonello, “The greatest consequence of the Trump presidency has been the weaponizing of disinformation and parallel dismantling of trust in the media. Unfortunately, it took the perpetration of the big lie that the election was a fraud, an insurrection at the Capitol, and almost destroying our democracy for someone to finally take action. But it appears to be working. Nothing like threatening the bottom line to get the desired attention.”

Most interesting ticker warning

During the impeachment trial, CBS’s Tampa Bay affiliate had a ticker on the bottom of the screen. It said, “Warning … the CBS News coverage of the Trump Impeachment Trial may contain violent images and explicit language.”

That’s amazing when you really let that sink in.

Reporting on Q

What is it like to cover QAnon — the whacked out, baseless conspiracy theory centered on the idea that prominent Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are cannibalistic, Satan-worshiping pedophiles? In a must-read piece, Poynter’s Angela Fu talks with some of the journalists who cover QAnon, including the BBC’s Marianna Spring, HuffPost’s Jesselyn Cook, CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny, Rolling Stone’s EJ Dickson, The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer, Mother Jones’ Ali Breland and Insider’s Rachel Greenspan.

Spring told Fu, “Online conspiracies and disinformation are no longer a fringe internet quirk, but something that has a huge bearing on real life. The riots at Capitol Hill … very starkly exposed how much damage these conspiracies online can really do.”

Initially, some reporters such as O’Sullivan worried that covering QAnon was giving it oxygen — that is, giving QAnon attention and, inadvertently, amplifying its crazy ideas. But that changed.

Zadrozny told Fu, “It’s when conspiracy theories move from online to IRL that we sort of feel like we need to explain who these people are that you might be seeing on your TV. What we don’t want people doing is seeing the stuff either in real life or on television and then googling it when there’s no responsible journalism out there on it.”

Read Fu’s story for a fascinating look at covering QAnon.

Super Bowl ratings

Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Tom Brady celebrates winning the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

After a day’s delay, the final Super Bowl ratings and viewership came out Tuesday. Not surprisingly, viewership was down.

Super Bowl LV between the Tampa Bay Bucs and Kansas City Chiefs averaged 96.4 million viewers across TV and streaming, according to CBS. That’s down from last year’s number of 102 million across Fox and streaming and the lowest since 2007. Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand reported that the number of viewers who watched the game just on CBS was 91.62 million.

Why isn’t it surprising that viewership was down? For starters, despite a marquee matchup of two star quarterbacks — Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes — the game wasn’t all that competitive. The Bucs had a 15-point lead at halftime on their way to an easy 31-9 victory. It ended up being the second-biggest blowout of the past 18 years. That likely was the biggest reason for a ratings dip.

Ourand, who knows ratings as well as anyone, tweeted, “It’s hard to spin these Super Bowl ratings into a positive story.” However, Ourand quickly pointed out that this will still turn out to easily be the most-watched telecast of 2021. Ourand tweeted, “The NFL remains as the most powerful TV product in America.”

Media tidbits

  • President Joe Biden will participate in a CNN town hall in Milwaukee next week. “CNN Presidential Town Hall with Joe Biden” will air Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. Eastern. It will be held at the Pabst Theater in an invitation-only, socially-distanced event. CNN’s Anderson Cooper will moderate. The town hall will air on CNN, CNN en Espanol, CNN International, and various CNN streaming services.
  • The Atlantic has launched an ambitious and worthwhile multiyear and tech project called “Inheritance.” The Atlantic describes it as a “project about American history, Black life, and the resilience of memory.” It includes contributions from Danielle Allen, Cynthia Greenlee, contributing writer Jemele Hill, Anna Holmes, senior editor Vann R. Newkirk II, Joy Priest and staff writer Clint Smith. It also marks The Atlantic debut of playwright, author and actor Anna Deavere Smith.
  • For the first week of February, Fox News won the primetime cable news battle. From 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern, Fox News’s lineup of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham averaged 2.35 million viewers. That was better than MSNBC (2.26 million) and CNN (1.8 million). However, it should be noted that Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC was the most-watched cable news show for the second week in a row with 3.8 million viewers.
  • There’s quite a battle among the Sunday morning network news programs. Most are producing great shows and the public is eating it up. NBC’s “Meet the Press” led the way last week with 3.87 million viewers, but ABC’s “This Week” drew 3.66 million and “Face the Nation” averaged 3.47 million. “Fox News Sunday” had 1.3 million.
  • Meanwhile, the weekday morning shows continue to put up solid numbers. ABC’s “Good Morning America” led the way last week with 3.57 million viewers, followed by NBC’s “ Today” (3.38 million) and “CBS This Morning” (2.85 million.)

Must-read stuff

New York Times journalist John Branch is one of my favorite sportswriters, and his outdoor writing is superb. In 2013, he won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for his six-part story “Snow Fall,” about a deadly avalanche in Washington state. If you haven’t read that story, do so.

I bring this up because in the first week of February in the United States, 14 people have been killed by avalanches. Branch quickly turns around this story: “Covid Restrictions Might Factor Into Avalanche Deaths, Experts Say.”

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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