Q&A with Government Professor Brendan Nyhan

by George Gerber | 2/5/20 2:10am

Source: Courtesy of Brendan Nyhan


Brendan Nyhan is a government professor whose areas of expertise include misperceptions and conspiracy theories, political communication, the media, political scandal and corruption. This week, The Dartmouth sat down with Nyhan to learn more about the media’s coverage of the impeachment trial of President Trump and potential biases in such reports.  

What are the different ways liberal and conservative media outlets are portraying President Trump’s impeachment?

BN: Well, the conservative outlets are more likely to portray the impeachment as partisan and question the facts supporting the charges brought forth by the Democrats. That varies across the conservative spectrum. I would say Fox News opinion shows have been the most dismissive, but other conservative voices have instead focused on questioning whether the charges would merit removal from office. Some conservative outlets are challenging facts, and others are challenging how those facts are being interpreted. 

On the liberal side, I think they’re pretty uniformly portraying the case against Trump as very strong and meriting removal. The mainstream media, of course, is somewhere inbetween those two sets of ideological outlets. 

How is mainstream media been presenting the trial?

BN: The mainstream media’s approach has generally been serious. I think the historic nature of the third impeachment in United States history has encouraged reporters to treat the process more seriously. The stakes are very high. At the same time, there is a temptation to cover the trial in the style of a partisan food fight — there are competing impulses in the media. On the one hand, you can cover the trial like a campaign; who’s up and who’s down. On the other hand, you can talk about the very serious issues at stake that have to do with the limits on the powers of the president. 

Depending on the day, outlets emphasize substance more some times and at other times focus more on pure politics. Of course, people want to know how the trial is going to turn out. At the same time, though, that kind of coverage is likely to cause people to view the process through their partisan filters. This is the kind of sports-style coverage — is my team winning or losing? In that kind of framework, it’s probably harder for people to see past which team they support.

How much of a partisan issue has impeachment become, both for those in Congress and the public?

BN: The entire process has been almost perfectly partisan in terms of how members of the House and Senate have voted to this point. That corresponds to the trends we’ve seen in Congress, where the parties have become more divided than at any point in past congressional history. There are very few members who are willing to cross party lines, especially on high-salience votes like whether to impeach a president. Now, we haven’t seen the final removal vote, but the votes on the various motions have been almost directly along party lines with only a couple of Republicans crossing over. So I’d expect that trend to continue. 

The public sees it largely along partisan lines as well. Not surprisingly, those are the cues they’re getting from elites. In a context where the public is only hearing from Republicans that Trump should not be removed from office and only hearing from Democrats that he should, it’s not surprising that the public feels the same way as their co-partisans in Congress. The problem is our constitutional system depends on members of Congress being more than rubber stamps for the party line on matters that are this serious. So, the question going forward is: “What, if anything, would merit removal from office? When would a party vote to remove a co-partisan president from office?” We don’t know.

Many people believe that Trump’s acquittal is imminent. Are less people engaged with the trial because they feel that the outcome is predetermined, and there’s no need to bother?

BN: Maybe. We don’t know. You can imagine if there had been new evidence introduced in the Senate trial that people would have followed the trial more closely, in part because that would have increased uncertainty about the eventual outcome. Just like people tune out of sporting events where one side is winning overwhelmingly, it may be the case that people lose interest in this process when it seems to be a foregone conclusion. I don’t think we know that to be true, but there are lots of reasons to think that’s plausible. 

What role, if any, has “fake news” played as the impeachment trial progresses?

BN: Well, the most important role that so-called “fake news” has played in this impeachment trial is the way it contributed to the events that are at the heart of the controversy. While there’s certainly been online misinformation as the trial has gone on, the most central role played by that kind of dubious content has been in motivating President Trump to seek information on a supposed conspiracy committed by Joe Biden, for which there is no evidence. The entire controversy centers on the search for information that came from dubious sources. That highlights an important point that, in some cases, the most important consequence of dubious information is the influence it has on political elites. 

Prior to this controversy, very few people were reading online content about Joe Biden’s activities in Ukraine, but that information made its way to Trump and his associates and prompted this search for dirt about Biden that eventually led to his impeachment. 

How will the Senate’s actions in limiting coverage of the impeachment trial affect how the media can disseminate information? 

BN: It’s hard to know. What took place in the Senate was public and was televised. So, ultimately, the people’s business was conducted in full view of the media. It may be the case that if the accessibility would have been greater, Americans would have been able to engage with the process more. There were tight restrictions on media access and the video feed that was available was quite limited on television. At the same time, the process was ultimately public. To the extent that I have any concerns, it’s more about the precedent of restrictions on coverage that Capitol Hill reporters said were quite unusual. If that trend were to continue or worsen, it would be problematic. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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