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Those Who Watched The Impeachment Hearings Got An Old Fashioned Civics Lesson


Millions of Americans tuned into yesterday's impeachment hearings. The buildup was intense, a promised collision of spectacle and substance. NPR's David Folkenflik explains viewers were instead treated to an old-fashioned civics lesson.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: A reporter for NBC News concluded the hearings lacked pizzazz. The former president of the White House Correspondents Association, who's still on the beat for Reuters, characterized yesterday's hearing as consequential but dull. Politico called the hearings a slog. And over on Fox News, Greg Gutfeld called it boring pornography for Democrats.


GREG GUTFELD: Congrats, Adam Schiff. You found something that made the Mueller hearing look sexy.

FOLKENFLIK: Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway appeared today on the network's morning show, "Fox & Friends."


KELLYANNE CONWAY: You tune in, you're either sound asleep or you can't follow - he said, she said, she said, he said, he said. It's a bunch of gossip girls.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox News is, of course, its own case, where, with a few exceptions, hosts, guests, journalists and even the graphics on screen tended to discount the seriousness of the allegations against the president. Even so, we're conditioned by network reality shows, which made the president a truly national figure, and by social media, which the president deploys at will, to expect flashy exchanges and especially viral moments. By and large, this hearing didn't offer those. But despite Gutfeld's argument, sexy really isn't the point.

NORAH O'DONNELL: I think it's easy in this day and age, when there's so much news coming out, to sort of dismiss things as, you know, boring or difficult to digest.

FOLKENFLIK: Norah O'Donnell is the anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News." Two decades ago, she covered the impeachment process of President Clinton.

O'DONNELL: The American public is watching the investigation as it goes on. That's how it's different from the Clinton impeachment, where there was an investigation that had preceded the hearings.

FOLKENFLIK: The House Intelligence Committee has released written transcripts of earlier depositions, but there's something transforming when viewers, when Americans, get to see witnesses for themselves, as they're getting to do this week. O'Donnell says she was struck by the two main witnesses yesterday, both veteran diplomats.

O'DONNELL: I mean, they were pretty straightforward guys, you know, who've served Republican and Democratic administrations, who were there just to lay out the facts as plainly as they saw them. And I think if you had the patience to listen through most of the hearings, you found a very compelling story about some career public servants who found this shadow foreign policy deeply disturbing and something that was against U.S. foreign policy interests.

FOLKENFLIK: The major broadcast and cable news networks cleared their schedules for much of the day yesterday, and more than 13 million Americans tuned in. That's not even including audiences for PBS and NPR. And there were revelations, for sure - new details about Trump's interest in getting the new Ukrainian president to pursue allegations of wrongdoing by Democrats there.


WILLIAM TAYLOR: A member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations.

FOLKENFLIK: This from Ambassador William Taylor.


TAYLOR: Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Mr. Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.

FOLKENFLIK: Republican Representative Elise Stefanik of New York made this case for the president - ultimately, no harm, no foul.


ELISE STEFANIK: For the millions of Americans viewing today, the two most important facts are the following - No. 1 - Ukraine received the aid; No. 2 - there was, in fact, no investigation into Biden.

FOLKENFLIK: And one voracious consumer of television said he was just too busy to watch. Don't take my word for it; he'll tell you himself. Here's what Trump had to say at a press conference with Turkish President Erdogan.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I haven't watched for one minute because I've been with the president, which is much more important as far as I'm concerned.

FOLKENFLIK: Of course, you don't have to take his word for it, either. President Trump or his aides retweeted his political defenders dozens of times yesterday, including video clips from the televised hearings themselves.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORRE'S "TWO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.