TV News Gears Up to Juggle Impeachment Trial, Election Campaign

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As if TV news needed more headlines…

The usual suspects are gearing up to cover the U.S. Senate’s impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, the latest swirl in what seems to be a never-ending news cycle centered on the White House. But the impeachment proceedings, which kick off in earnest Tuesday, take place as many networks are also deep into coverage of the race among Democrats to secure the nomination for the 2020 election.

“There is an election campaign going on, and CNN has coverage plans that are somewhat unrelated to the impeachment trial,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington Bureau chief, in an interview. “We will have to remain flexible.”

That’s not to say the AT&T-owned news outlet and its rivals aren’t gong to present hours of impeachment coverage. They are. “We have plans in place for anything that could happen,” says Susan Zirinsky, president of CBS News.

The news outlets anticipate strong interest in the trial, just the third in U.S. history and the first one to take place since President Bill Clinton faced impeachment in 1999 (he was ultimately acquitted). “It is an exotic event, no matter what side you are on, no matter what your views of it are,” says Feist. “ I suspect that, as in 1999, there will be high interest.”

There will also be some drama. Journalism organizations are rattled by a decision to follow the template of the 1999 proceedings and leave Senate cameras as the only ones able to transmit images of the process. There are also procedures in place to keep reporters from being able to gain access to senators as they come and go from the trial. There are also expectations that officials will limit the electronic devices journalists can carry into the Senate press gallery.

CBS expects to broadcast special reports each day of the trial, led by Norah O’Donnell, who will feature analysis from Nancy Cordes and Margaret Brennan. Even “60 Minutes” will have a role to play, with correspondents Lesley Stahl and John Dickerson lending perspective.  ABC News also plans special reports, led by George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, Jonathan Karl and Martha Raddatz, among others. Lester Holt will anchor special reports for NBC News, joined by Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell along legal experts and presidential historians.

Cable-news networks plan to devote hours to the event. MSNBC plans to rely on Brian Williams and Nicolle Wallace for hours of coverage. On Tuesday, Chuck Todd and Ari Melber will prove pre-trial perspective at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., respectively. Meanwhile, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will lead Fox News Channel’s coverage, which kicks off Tuesday. Bill Hemmer, who is taking over the network’s 3 p.m. slot, will provide coverage for affiliates of Fox Broadcasting that can also be live-streamed by the stations.

Deciding how long to stay on air each day will hinge on the event, says Zirinsky. “We will make those decisions based on where they are in the debate and where they are in the process,” she says. “We are prepared to stay on. We are prepared to come off at certain points, but we will be updating all day long.”

The trial could add some new wrinkles to events that have already been planned. ABC News is scheduled to televise the next Democratic debate, for example, on February 7. CNN expects to host two evenings of town halls with Democratic candidates on January 28 and 29, says Feist. Those conversations were scheduled to originate from Iowa in the days before the caucus there. But the trial likely means that some of the candidates – Senator Warren. Senator Sanders and Senator Klobuchar – will need to be present in Washington. That means CNN will have to plan for broadcasts from two different locations, says Feist.

He says viewers should expect to see the bulk of the network’s Washington team, including Jake Tapper. Dana Bash and Wolf Blitzer, to be brought in on impeachment coverage, with Erin Burnett slated to offer perspective at trial’s end each day. CNN plans to live stream the Senate impeachment trial live in its entirety, without requiring log–in to a cable provider. “This is an all hands on deck event,” he adds.

Fox News will also have to juggle different events. The Fox Corp.-owned network plans to host a town hall on January 26 with Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg. Chris Wallace is scheduled to moderate the event.