CBS’s Dickerson: Lack of ‘Shared Set of Facts’ Could Lead to ‘Constitutional Crisis’

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On Friday morning, 60 Minutes journalist John Dickerson blamed a lack of a “common set of facts” and social media that “allows different information” for “destroying institutions” and leading to a possible constitutional crisis in America. Dickerson appeared on CBS This Morning to contrast the impeachments of Nixon and Clinton with that of Donald Trump. 

Offering a nostalgic look back at the era of three networks (and the supremacy of his own CBS), the journalist reminisced, “You know, during Nixon you had three networks. Some would say there was really only one network at the time.” Of course, conservatives point out that was a time of no Fox News and no talk radio while powerful newspapers like the liberal Washington Post and New York Times dominating the landscape.

 

 

Dickerson highlighted the good old days where ABC, CBS and NBC could control the dispersal of information: 

But you had a sort of common set of facts. Now everybody can go to their corners. You have social media which not only allows different information but allows a kind of tribal response to things. So that people just talk past each other and that destroys institutions. 

Gayle King, who might not like others in the non-approved media pointing out that she’s a Democratic donor and has vacationed with the Obamas, complained, “But you do make a good point about different set of facts. You watch one network and feel something, watch another network and feel another different way. But aren't there really only one set of facts?” 

Just getting warmed up, Dickerson replied that this messy spread of information could lead to a lack of trust in the media (too late) and a “constitutional crisis”: 

Yes. But sometimes takes a minute or two to get to them. Sometimes people in the interim while those facts are being worked out by a process long ago set up, it's in their interests to undermine the institutions looking into them by saying, “The FBI and the CIA and the House are all —  are all compromised somehow.” What that does is it not only hurts the ability to get to the facts, but it means the next time you try to go get to the facts, everybody thinks those institutions are worthless. And that's when you lead to chaos, and that's when you have a constitutional crisis. 

This shared facts talking point is a favorite of the media. Brian Stelter in 2016 worried, “There's more fact checking than ever, but fewer people trust in the facts. Are we moving more into an authoritarian media climate, more like Russia or China?” 

It’s a trope that Barack Obama pushed to David Letterman in 2018, saying, “One of the biggest challenges that we have to our democracy is the degree to which we do not share a common baseline of facts.” 

Speaking of facts, co-host Anthony Mason asked of Watergate: “A lot of people compare this obviously to the impeachment during the Watergate era. Nixon by the time impeachment came around, he had very high negatives, didn't he?" 

Well, no. That's not correct. Nixon had approval ratings in the 50s through April of 1973. Not-so coincidentally, media coverage of Watergate, (according to the March/April 1994 issue of Media Monitor), skyrocketed in the spring of 1973. 

A transcript is below. Click “expand” to read more. 

CBS This Morning
10/11/19
8:05 a.m. Eastern

GAYLE KING: There’s a lot going on. 60 Minutes correspondent John Dickerson is with us to break down everything that's happened this week in Washington. Good to see you, John Dickerson. 

JOHN DICKERSON: Good to be back, Gayle. Good to see you. 

KING: It seeps that every day there's a jaw-dropping moment where we talk amongst ourselves and say, “Can you believe fill in the blank just happened?” Now lately I've been hearing words like constitutional crisis. Is it that serious, or should people calm down, take a beat? 

DICKERSON: Right. Well, and it was so quiet before this, right?

KING: Yeah. 

DICKERSON: It depends where you start on the Constitution. I think Constitution is getting a stress test. So if you think the Constitution which — and it was arranged this way, was to basically adjudicate fights so people wouldn't take their fights out into the street. Well, there's a fight going on. If the Constitution can handle it at the end of the process, if everybody gets their say, then things are okay and it's not a crisis. The problem is if the Constitution and the separation of powers is set up in a way that it doesn't get adjudicated, then you're in a true crisis. One little thing to remember is that Ben Franklin when he rolled out impeachment as an idea in the summer of 1787, it was to exonerate the President as much to kick out a president. We've long forgotten that. But in that concept, the Constitution can still handle this so far. 

ANTHONY MASON: The White House has decided to take a strategy of resisting. What do you make of that strategy? 

DICKERSON: Well, it's familiar to them and also financial to White House which is resist, resist, and that gives you better negotiating terms for witnesses, for all kind of things. The problem, upside for the White House is when there's delay, you can bait the other side into looking unprofessional. Adam Schiff had some credibility problems when he said things that were not so about being in touch with the whistleblower. On the other hand, it also gives an opportunity for the daily drum beat of serious news to come out. You have serious career professionals saying that a disordered White House led to a situation where U.S. foreign policy was undermined by, essentially, a rogue operation. And that puts national security at risk and sends a daily picture of chaos. And it's why 17 percent in the Fox poll said the President did something that wasn't right. That's not good numbers for the President. And that's what happens when you have this daily drumbeat. 

KING: How does it compare to the proceedings, the impeachment proceedings of Nixon and Clinton? I think people aren't clear exactly. You can be impeached and still stay in office. 

DICKERSON: Well, you —  you can. We should think of impeachment and then also the coming election because you can —  the impeachment can go its route, but also the President has to worry about his political fortunes going forward and whether people decide they want four more years of a highly improvisational White House. We see improvisation crashing against the system. What's different this time is you have more partisanship, although, you know, in — 

KING: More this time? 

DICKERSON: You have a country that has sorted more partisan than — was highly partisan in Nixon and Clinton. And the dam breaks at the end of Nixon. But for a long time, a lot of Republicans stayed with him. But you have a more partisan country and a disbursal of channels of communication. You know, during Nixon you had three networks. Some would say there was really only one network at the time, Gayle. 

KING: Yes. 

DICKERSON: But you had a sort of common set of facts. Now everybody can go to their corners. You have social media which not only allows different information but allows a kind of tribal response to things. So that people just talk past each other and that destroys institutions. It's not just about whether impeachment gets adjudicated, but it's whether the institutions that we used to rely on get burned down in the process. 

KING: But you do make a good point about different set of facts. You watch one network and feel something, watch another network and feel another different way. But aren't there really only one set of facts? 

DICKERSON: Yes. But sometimes takes a minute or two to get to them. Sometimes people in the interim while those facts are being worked out by a process long ago set up, it's in their interests to undermine the institutions looking into them by saying, “The FBI and the CIA and the House are all —  are all compromised somehow.” What that does is it not only hurts the ability to get to the facts, but it means the next time you try to go get to the facts, everybody thinks those institutions are worthless. And that's when you lead to chaos, and that's when you have a constitutional crisis. 

MASON: You mentioned the Fox poll. A lot of people compare this obviously to the impeachment during the Watergate era. Nixon by the time impeachment came around, he had very high negatives, didn't he? 

DICKERSON: Yeah. He was at about 20 percent at the very, very end. But you —  parties rally, and the way opinion changes really is when you get what the political scientists call charismatic dissenters, which is to say somebody who a fan of the President's, not a never Trumper, but somebody on the President's team saying whether with respect to Syria, whether it’s respect to Ukraine or anything else, saying, you know, “This is too much.” But right now that's not happening. Republicans are very happy with this President still because of tax cuts, regulation, judges, defense spending, taking on China. He has done more for a lot of Republicans than they say any Republican has done since Ronald Reagan. He's got very strong support still in his party, although obviously it's weakening with some of these new impeachment polls. 

KING: Do you have a one sentence on where this is heading? Keeping people up at night? 

DICKERSON: Not towards stability. There will be more instability.  

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