The Media's Impeachable Offenses

Why doesn't the media report on the specter of impeachment?


| August 16, 2007


The possibility of impeaching President Bush and Vice President Cheney has been regarded by the media as a touch less crazy than sporting a tin-foil hat or insisting that you just saw Elvis in the deli line at the local supermarket. The issue is largely ignored by the media, and when the rare report on the subject surfaces, it's usually regarded as an opportunity to score some laughs. For example, as Extra!'s Cynthia Cooper points out in an survey of the mainstream media's treatment of the issue, when presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich made his case for impeaching Cheney in April, the Washington Post simply made fun of the Ohio representative for being short.

Despite the media's dismissal of the topic as a fringe movement's pipe dream, impeachment of the president is a popular issue. A recent Gallup poll reported that 36 percent of Americans believed that Congress would be justified in initiating impeachment proceedings against Bush. Why, then, does impeachment so often get ignored? Perhaps reporters see it merely as a dead-end story, one with a tired story line, based on 'old news.'

Or they could be taking their cues from the Democratic line on impeachment. In a recent Washington Post column titled 'The Dumbest Move the Dems Could Make,' Michael Tomasky sums up the Democratic position succinctly. A move to impeach could never actually pass, Tomasky argues, and would drive attention away from issues that Congress could actually get something accomplished on. And while an unsuccessful impeachment attempt by the Republican Congress against President Clinton in 1998 arguably helped mobilize conservative support, an unsuccessful impeachment attempt in 2007 could play out very differently for Democrats by transforming the embattled Bush into a martyr. Worse yet, it could allow Republicans to shift the national debate away from their legislative shortcomings.

With few exceptions, Democratic lawmakers agree that impeachment, even if it is justified, would be impractical. Tikkun, the progressive Jewish magazine, interviewed three congressmen about impeachment for its July/August issue (article not available online). The results are telling. Even though Tikkun's cover blared the headline 'Impeach Bush & Cheney,' only one congressman -- Kucinich, who introduced articles of impeachment against Cheney in the House -- thought impeachment was a good idea. The other two Democratic representatives -- Jim Moran of Virginia and Mel Watt of North Carolina -- stressed that impeachment would distract Congress and divide the country.

But is a political brush-off a legitimate justification for the media to do the same? If news outlets continue down that course, they could repeat some unfortunate blunders. As Salon's Glenn Greenwald points out, political writers' disdain for those who buck the beltway consensus is hazardously selective. Take, for example, the case of Howard Dean. When, as a 2004 White House contender, Dean came out against the still relatively popular war, he was labeled as nothing short of crazy. But Dean, for all his purported emotional imbalances and impolitic screaming, turned out to be right about the Iraq debacle. (Unfortunately, Greenwald notes, the media isn't applying the same skepticism to Joseph Lieberman's support for the Rev. John Hagee -- a prominent evangelical minister currently preaching the End Times gospel around Washington.)

The media has a habit of lowering a cone-of-silence over issues that seem unfashionable. But no matter how impractical the prospect of impeachment appears, at the root of the issue are very real matters of urgent political import. 'At a time when people need coherent, informative and probing discussions of presidential misconduct and constitutional standards,' Cooper writes, 'the major media are simply missing the mark on impeachment.'