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Impeachment in the era of fragmented media

Many Americans will view impeachment news through partisan filters of social media and cable.

MINNEAPOLIS — Most of us won't get to see every minute of the House Intelligence Committee's impeachment hearings. We'll rely instead on journalists, talk show hosts, YouTube commentators and others to condense hours of testimony into highlights and key moments.

But there's a huge difference between how Americans consume the news now compared to the days of the Watergate hearings in 1973 that eventually brought down Richard Nixon, or even the Kenneth Starr investigation that led to Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998.

We won't all be seeing the same news or getting the same narrative.

"What’s really changed, especially compared to the Nixon years, is we no longer have a dominant mainstream media, where we have a shared understanding of what those facts are," said Benjamin Toff, an expert on the political implications of changing media at the University of Minnesota.

"We really don’t live in a world in which people are consuming the same version of these proceedings."

Toff noted that many Americans rely on social media and partisan cable networks to keep up with what's happening. And those formats are providing a version of the news filtered often to reinforce the existing political leanings of consumers.

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Algorithms also affect what shows up in our news feeds on sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others, all based on what we've read and watched in the past.

"It’s not just social media. It’s also the cable news environment we live in," Toff remarked.

"If all you’re consuming is partisan media, whether it’s through social media or through television, you’re really only getting a filtered sense of what happened."

He also pointed out politicians can circumvent the mainstream media using social media, placing longer excerpts than the types that will fit into mainstream newscasts. They also place slick broadcast-style stories told from their perspective. 

"A lot of what goes viral is not necessarily the most substantive, newsworthy, important moments, but the parts that make one side look really good or make one side look really bad."

President Trump posted videos on Facebook and Twitter as the hearing was getting underway, criticizing the hearings and Democrats. He also retweeted and shared posts by others that agreed with his point of view, including posts by Republicans sitting on the Intelligence Committee.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who gave the green light to commence hearing on the Ukraine affair, also tweeted and retweeted posts calling attention to the proceedings. 

People on both sides are trying to win people over because public perception is critical to how this political drama will eventually end.

"Impeachment is different from typical court proceedings -- it is ultimately a political decision," Toff explained.

"And the pressure applied by the public matters, and the public's understanding how this is playing out matters."

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