Flashback: The Media’s Flagrant Impeachment Double Standard

December 17th, 2022 9:10 AM

Sunday and Monday mark the anniversary of two presidential impeachments: Democrat Bill Clinton in 1998 and Republican Donald Trump in 2019. Despite differences in the underlying charges, the media’s treatment of the two cases reflected the tribal partisanship which dominates political coverage these days.

In Clinton’s case, angry reporters branded his impeachment a “legislative coup d’etat” and a “spiteful” act from Republicans executing a partisan strategy. In Trump’s case, however, journalists lauded it as an example of Democrats “putting principle before politics” and “a great day for constitutional democracy.”

When the House voted on December 19, 1998 to approve two articles of impeachment against Clinton, journalists cast it not as a blemish on the President, but on the Congress which voted against him. “Historians may not look kindly on what transpired behind me here today,” NBC Nightly News weekend anchor Brian Williams intoned that evening from Capitol Hill.

Hours earlier, during her network’s live coverage, NBC’s Maria Shriver scolded that the vote was “a mark against this Congress, and this Congress will be forever known as the Congress that impeached the President of the United States.”

Three days later, CNBC host Geraldo Rivera popped up on NBC’s Today show to blast the vote: “It was a spiteful action....It was a legislative coup d’etat, and it has been rejected utterly by the American people....”

At the start of Clinton’s trial the following month, the media’s “coup” talk persisted. “Is or is there not some concern of the public perception — concern in some quarters, not all of them Democratic — that this is in fact a kind of effort at a quote ‘coup?’ That is, you have a twice elected, popularly-elected President of the United States and ... [Republicans] having been unable to beat him at the polls, have found another way to get him out of office,” CBS anchor Dan Rather challenged Republican Senator Warren Rudman during live coverage on January 7, 1999.

Two decades later, when Democrats voted to impeach a Republican President, the media shamelessly flipped their script. “This is the essence of what democracy is,” CNN legal analyst Laura Coates applauded on December 18, 2019 as the House voted against Trump. “As one representative said today, it’s a sad day for America, but it’s a great day for constitutional democracy.”

On MSNBC the next day, former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham posed as an nonpartisan analyst as he saluted Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s performance: “It’s an extraordinary political achievement, but even more important, I think it is an important constitutional one,” Meacham marveled.

(Meacham would later help write the farewell speech that Pelosi delivered as she stepped down as Speaker after this year’s Republican House victories.)

Earlier, on December 10, 2019, as House Democrats revealed the two Articles of Impeachment they planned to pursue against Trump, ABC broke into regular programming for a special report. Their legal analyst, Melissa Murray, boldly proclaimed the partisan event was “exactly what the Framers contemplated....This is not political, this is not a witch hunt, this is their solemn duty.”

When it was Republicans voting to impeach a Democratic President, the media found a party line approach discrediting. “If the Republicans want to go ahead and do this, I think they disgrace themselves in a more profound way than President Clinton has by abusing the machinery of impeachment,” Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift sneered on the December 12, 1998 edition of The McLaughlin Group.

“[Republican Congressman] Henry Hyde himself said they would never do this along partisan lines, the House would be disgraced if they did it along partisan lines, and that’s exactly what they’re doing,” New York Daily News columnist Steve Roberts echoed the next day on CNN’s Late Edition.

But in Trump’s case, the media cheered Democrats’ party line victories. “Democrats have beaten back repeated Republican attempts to throw out those Articles of Impeachment,” anchor Norah O’Donnell chirped on the December 12, 2019 CBS Evening News. Moments later, correspondent Nancy Cordes explained, “as the party in power, Democrats blocked every effort today to pare down their charges,” without the slightest suggestion the rigidly partisan approach hurt Democrats’ cause.

A few days later, on the December 17 Today show, correspondent Peter Alexander applauded how a group of on-the-fence House Democrats “who have already expressed reservations about impeachment, now say they are putting principle before politics, announcing they will back impeachment.”

So NBC thought falling in lockstep with party leaders was “putting principle before politics”?

In Clinton’s case, journalists thought a Senate trial would be a waste of time, and deplored the idea of witness testimony dragging it out. “Why go through all this business about witnesses? Why not just get it done?” ABC Good Morning America co-host Charlie Gibson lectured GOP Senator Bob Dole on January 18, 1999. “If you have witnesses, it’s going to add months to this thing and tie up the Senate, isn’t it?”

But in Trump’s case, the idea of tying up the Senate was acceptable if it helped Democrats make their case. “We need a real trial in the Senate with real facts, real documents and real witnesses,” CNN legal analyst Elie Honig argued on January 2, 2020.

“A trial without witnesses is not a trial, full stop,” Daily Beast columnist Jonathan Alter agreed on MSNBC’s The Last Word on January 8.



Liberal journalists hated Clinton’s Senate trial: “It’s Stalinist. It seems as though it’s gone on behind closed doors. Everything is according to a script. It’s just arcane and impenetrable in the extreme, and it has nothing to do with what we would consider normal fairness and trial procedure to be,” MSNBC host John Hockenberry complained on his January 28, 1999 program.

But when Trump was the President on trial, the fate of the world was at stake: “The stakes here are immense. It’s not just about the political future of one man, Donald Trump,” The New Yorker’s David Remnick exclaimed on CNN’s Reliable Sources on January 22, 2020. “It’s about the future of democracy and democratic process and — this is a trend throughout the world. It’s about the future of the Earth!

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call The NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.