When Congress returns next week from its Thanksgiving break, the impeachment inquiry will enter its next phase, as the House Judiciary Committee considers whether to write up articles charging President Donald Trump with high crimes and misdemeanors.
As of now, the Dec. 4 hearing will be different from the five days of public testimony so far – a new set of lawmakers and a set of expert witnesses, a contrast to the parade of figures who testified to what they saw and when they saw it.
But the setting will remain the same – a hearing room in the Longworth Office Building at the Capitol.
For the 11 million to 14 million viewers who watched the hearings each day, the neoclassical venue was notable for its stately features, including chandeliers and royal navy curtains, what the news site The Hill once said resembled “a small theater house.” For lawmakers, media and the public gallery who filled the space, it had the feel of a TV studio, with seven cameras placed throughout and stage lights illuminating every corner of the room.
Then there is the temperature – which was air conditioner cold. On the fourth and fifth days of public testimony last week, viewers could notice journalists wearing scarves, shawls, even winter coats in the background.
“What are the stories of David Letterman and his TV studio where he kept it quite cold?” quips Jon Kelley, assignment desk manager at C-SPAN.
Kelley said that C-SPAN has prioritized impeachment coverage, as it placed seven cameras throughout the room for the hearings, and it is hoping for similar arrangements when the Judiciary Committee meets next week. The seven cameras included ones for each side, for the witnesses and for higher up wider shots of the room, but they are live throughout the hearing. The broadcast and cable networks, which rely on C-SPAN’s cameras as their pool feeds, then make their own decisions as to which angles or cutaway shots they want to take, while C-SPAN makes its own editorial decisions of which shots to feature for its telecast.
The channel also has directed a far greater number of employees to produce the coverage than it would for other hearings. With two shifts, C-SPAN had 24 staffers dedicated to the hearings, compared to four for a normal proceeding.
“It is not lost on us the significance of what we are covering here,” Kelley said. “One way or another we are witnessing an historic moment. We are directing our version of it, but everyone else is directing their version of it. All of those cameras are being fed out live, individually.”
Kelley said that what helped was being involved in the planning process early, starting on Nov. 7. They worked with House Intelligence Committee communications director Patrick Boland and the House Radio and Television Gallery staff to go over the arrangements and to plan out how the room would be covered. The request for seven cameras was approved, albeit not all in the places they initially wanted. A head on camera aimed at the dais, for instance, had to be placed farther away in the middle of the room.
There were a few glitches in coverage. A still photographer bumped into one of the C-SPAN cameras focused on the witness table. Power went out on another camera. “It was nothing that impacted coverage,” Kelley said.
There also were moments when those in the room perhaps didn’t realize that they were being televised, as the hearing room functioned like a live studio, even during breaks. When Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) crossed over to the Democrats’ side and spoke briefly to Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), the seconds long clip became a viral moment. He smiled at her, then after she walked away he had a much more serious impression and turned over his file folder.
In another instance during a break, a camera caught Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who sat in the gallery during many of the hearings, chatting with a group of reporters. Then Meadows suddenly said to the group that he was doing “off the record,” and continued his conversation. Kelley said they don’t want that to happen again, as Meadows wasn’t initially heard by those who were supervising the feed at the time. “In truth, and I don’t say this lightly, that won’t happen again,” he said.
Kelley said that as impeachment moves through Judiciary, the coverage may be altered slightly, as the focus will be on the members, not on the witness table.
But by and large, things went smoothly given the complicated nature of their plans. “When you create a plan that is much larger than you have attacked in a while, there is a lot of room for error,” he said.
The reporters and photographers who were in the room to cover the hearings for dozens of outlets around the world had to be prepared to be caught on camera. They sat on tables in back of the witnesses or on chairs off to the side, but at some moments the staffs of the press gallery, which coordinates coverage, warned them that they would definitely be in camera range. The message: You’re in a fishbowl; don’t do anything embarrassing.
The process for getting credentials to cover the hearings also was carefully planned. Journalists applied for credentials through one the House press galleries — daily press, radio-TV and periodical press — and seats were assigned to each outlet. Because of demand, some outlets shared seats for morning and afternoon sessions. Being in the fishbowl had its advantages, beyond the historic moment: As each witness began to testify, the gallery staff would hand out the opening statements.
Yet as dramatic as some of that testimony was, whether from Marie Yovanovitch, Alexander Vindman, Gordon Sondland or Fiona Hill, it also was in line with expectations. Their closed-door transcripts had already been released. As one network official involved in coverage put it, “There weren’t a lot of surprises. From a logistical standpoint, that is good. From a media standpoint, you want the unexpected.” Another factor, the official noted, was that the hearings required a bit more from viewer attention spans. The details were more complicated than other bombshell congressional moments, like the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation last year or even the Clinton impeachment in 1998.
The viewing audience varied between 11 million and almost 14 million in the five days of public testimony, which is not a blockbuster but not terrible either. The latest polls don’t show much movement in public sentiment.
The hearings so far also saw no divergence from partisan lines – Democrats in favor of the process, Republicans calling it charade. As Kelley noted, “The interesting thing to watch is that when something significant was said, how much more entrenched each side got.” A member of the C-SPAN crew during the Clinton impeachment hearings, he said that “even then, it certainly wasn’t as partisan.”
And there’s every reason to believe that the next hearings will be just as polarized as the first round, given the way that past Judiciary hearings have gone this year. Think what we’ve already seen so far: hearings with Robert Mueller and Corey Lewandowski.
The committee itself is made up of a membership with high media profiles, and others notable for being among Congress’s cast of characters. Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and its top Republican, Doug Collins of Georgia will be joined by a number of members who are often on TV, including Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), as well as two who represent industry-centric areas of Los Angeles, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA).
There’s also Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who, in an interview with Politico, called Mueller an “anal opening,” and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), who ate a bucket of fried chicken during a May hearing to protest Attorney General William Barr’s failure to appear. Making return appearances will be Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), all of whom sit on Intelligence and Judiciary committees.
Meanwhile, many in media believe that signs point to a predictable outcome: The House voting to impeach Trump before Christmas, but the Senate acquitting him in a trial early next year. The wild card would be if someone unexpected, like former National Security Adviser John Bolton, testifies, or if a sizable number of Democrats back off and move for a censure resolution instead.
That storyline, though, doesn’t mean that the hearings don’t or won’t have an impact.
Alan Schroeder, professor emeritus at Northeastern University and the author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, noted that the testimony of a parade of government civil servants, putting a human face on a group that is so often disparaged. He also said that what we’ve seen so far is just the “opening chapter in what will be an ongoing drama that will dominate the media for at least the next couple of months.”
“I think the Trump impeachment hearings have dominated recent headlines in a way that most news these days does not,” he said, “and if the House Democrats have any showbiz savvy, they will find a way to keep the momentum going.”
In the largest of the House’s hearing venues, the Democrats certainly will have the room to do it.