CBS blinked first.
After less than three hours of live coverage Tuesday, the network of Walter Cronkite cut away from the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, yielding to daytime fare like “Dr. Phil” and “Judge Judy.”
NBC held out longer, but by 4 p.m., ABC was the last traditional broadcast network still in breaking-news mode. Die-hards could turn to cable news for their fix.
In television terms, the opening hours of Trump’s trial — only the third in American history, and the second of the mass-media era — did not exactly make for visually compelling viewing. For Republican Senate leadership, that was by design.
Senate officials rejected repeated requests to allow outside cameras into the chamber to record the trial — meaning that what viewers see and hear will be dictated by cameras and microphones controlled by Senate staff members, rather than an independent news organization. (Even C-SPAN was not allowed access.)
The result: Audiences were introduced Tuesday to the constricted, lo-fi view of the Senate floor that will be ubiquitous on the nation’s TV screens in the coming days.
Election nights have their interactive maps and whiz-bang graphics. State of the Union coverage features high-definition reaction shots of senior government officials, generating the occasional iconic moment.
But the trial of a sitting president? On Tuesday, the small-screen vista was limited to artless shots of House impeachment managers and Trump’s lawyers at their lecterns, with an occasional overhead glimpse of the chamber thrown in.
Squint, and you may have been able to make out an individual senator or two.
Anchor Chris Wallace, commenting as part of Fox News’ analyst team, pointed out what viewers were missing.
“Because these are the government set of controlled cameras, we are only able to see the podium and who is speaking,” Wallace said Tuesday. “We are not able to see what is the emotion, what is the state of consciousness of the members of the Senate as all this goes on at considerable length.”
MSNBC, whose prime-time opinion shows are a gathering space for liberals, acknowledged the restricted views with some subtle trolling. Attentive viewers might have noticed a graphic in the upper-left corner of the MSNBC screen, noting that the trial footage was provided by “Capitol Hill Senate TV”: the government, not a news outlet.
CBS gave national affiliates the option of picking up a feed of the trial from CBSN, its streaming-only news channel, after 2 p.m. Its Washington-based evening newscast opened with an extended segment on the trial, with anchor Norah O’Donnell interviewing four of the House impeachment managers.
Journalists for print organizations faced their own hurdles Tuesday.
As promised by Republican Senate leadership, reporters were herded into roped-off areas in the Capitol hallways as senators entered and left the chamber, a significant change from the free access that journalists there usually enjoy.
When Manu Raju, a CNN reporter, tried to interview two Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado — about the trial’s rules, the lawmakers ignored him and walked on. On an ordinary day, Raju would have followed them. On Tuesday, he was stuck in a press pen behind gold stanchions and maroon velvet ropes.
Photographers’ movements in the Capitol were restricted, too, resulting in limited opportunities to capture images of lawmakers on a momentous day.
Senate officials cited security concerns as the reason for the added restrictions, noting the presence of Chief Justice John Roberts as the trial’s presiding judge. Michael Steele, a former Republican Party chairman and an MSNBC analyst, offered his own hypothesis.
“They don’t want the public to see this,” Steele said of the Republicans who control the Senate. “They don’t want us to assess for ourselves.”