(CNN Business)A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
The news media (once again) finds itself covering a moment unlike any other in history. President Trump is set to become the first president in US history to have been impeached twice — this time for inciting a deadly riot on Capitol Hill after weeks of peddling disinfo and promoting conspiracy theories aimed at undermining the results of a free and fair election.But unlike last time, Trump is starting to see some cracks in his stronghold over the GOP. Meanwhile, Trump’s allies in right-wing media aren’t putting up nearly as aggressive of a defense they did the last time he faced impeachment. (Last time, you’ll remember, Trump’s most prominent propagandists constructed an alternate reality in which Democrats did what he was accused of. This time the argument mostly amounts to impeachment being divisive.)So how should the press cover this monumental moment? I reached out to WaPo’s Margaret Sullivan, NBC’s Ben Collins, Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik, Politico’s Jack Shafer, and Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer to solicit some advice…”Use plain, descriptive language”Read MoreSullivan stressed the importance of offering audiences clear-eyed coverage of what they are watching. “It will be important not to fall into the trap of false equivalence, but rather to stick as close as possible to substance rather than the partisan politics of what’s at stake,” Sullivan wrote by email. “And to use plain, descriptive language that doesn’t tiptoe around reality. A First Amendment-protected protest is one thing; a mob of marauders is quite another. And anybody who’s seen the video knows what happened on Jan. 6.”Context is crucialZurawik said he believes the number one element the press should focus on is framing the events unfolding with clear context. “It needs heavy analysis woven into reportorial coverage,” Zurawik said. “That analysis will provide the context that gives the coverage the stature this moment deserves.” Zurawik added that a “sense of moral authority” should be conveyed. “There is not enough discussion of moral authority in mainstream media … Use it in the coverage. Constantly remind viewers that what Trump did last Wednesday led to the deaths of five people and the desecration of one of the most sacred symbols in American history and life.”Understand the Information Wars that are raging”In the past half-decade, a news ecosystem has appeared where logical consistency and reality simply do not matter. Every once in a while, it presents itself to the wider public, and it’s jarring,” Collins wrote me. “This happened last week, for example, when Matt Gaetz attempted to pin the Capitol riots on Antifa hours after Trump supporters stormed the room he was speaking in. Telling the truth is not the point. The point is to never lose the argument in the moment, and never look back.””It will happen again this week with impeachment, as some Congresspeople who pushed election fraud lies for two months will be voting on impeaching the president for inciting insurrection fueled by people angry about those very same election fraud lies,” Collins added. “Healthy news consumers will be aghast at this development, that more excuses will likely be made for insurrectionists on the House floor. But it’s a good time for straight news agencies to call this out: Some people seem more concerned with protecting a system that rewards constant lies and shifting excuses than protecting our democracy. So are they a victim of that ecosystem, and captured by that mob, or are they happily a part of it themselves?”Language mattersZelizer said that the press should highlight the point of this impeachment: “To draw lines in the sand as to what kinds of actions go beyond the realm of acceptable uses of presidential power.” Zelizer said, “The debate over the impeachment matters as many Americans are trying to process what happened.””In talking about what happened the press should be thoughtful in its language,” Zelizer added. “Reporters should not describe this as merely a consequence of intense polarization and a divided America. This is about an act of violence against Congress, the building and the people, after the president and the GOP had been fueling the ‘Stop the Seal’ movement for weeks right up until the final moment. To talk about the insurrection this way is to be accurate, not biased.”Shafer: Just do the jobWhen I emailed Shafer for his thoughts, he (unsurprisingly) had a bit of a contrarian take: “No special instructions for coverage are needed or desired. Journalists should try to break stories, expand them where they go, do it accurately, and prepare their mea culpas for where they err…”