Why don’t views on impeachment budge? Polarized news

(Los Angeles Times)

Testimony by distinguished American diplomats didn’t do it, neither did furious denunciations by Republican members of Congress. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s delay in sending the House impeachment resolution to the Senate didn’t change it, neither did President Trump’s tweets.

Throughout months of heated debate, nothing has significantly changed public opinion on Trump’s impeachment. Americans remain closely divided: A significant majority believes the president did something wrong — perhaps something illegal — but a crucial bloc has not been convinced he should be removed from office.

The rock-steadiness of public sentiment has surprised and frustrated partisans on both sides of the debate. What accounts for it?


Polarized news sources provide a big part of the answer, judging by a major new study from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. The study is the first release from a yearlong Pew project that will track how Americans’ sources of news affect their views of major issues.

The reality that Democrats and Republicans get news from different sources is not new, but the study’s fresh numbers provide striking detail on how much the gulf has grown, how wide it has become and, specifically, how it has affected views of impeachment.

An ever-widening gap

The study questioned more than 12,000 American adults about where they get their news and which news sources they trust. It found that polarization has grown markedly during the Trump years.

Democrats and Republicans rely on “two nearly inverse news media environments,” the authors write. Republicans rely on a small selection of news sources they trust — primarily Fox News — and reject most others. Democrats trust a wider array of news sources, but not the ones Republicans trust.

Of 30 news outlets Pew asked about — running a gamut from the major television and cable news networks to online sites and four newspapers with national circulation — not one is trusted by even half of Americans.

About one in five people in each party lives in a tight news bubble, turning only to outlets favored by their side of the political divide, Pew found. A larger swath sometimes see news from outside their bubble, but favor sources that cater to their side.

Republicans have grown more alienated from most of the national news media since Pew asked about the subject five years ago. Compared with the previous survey, Republican distrust has especially grown toward CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post — all prominent and repeated targets of Trump’s ire.

Five years ago, about a third of Republicans said they distrusted CNN. Today, it’s closer to two-thirds who say so.

The polarization is starkest at the ideological poles of the two parties. Among conservative Republicans, for example, 75% say they trust Fox News. Among liberal Democrats, 77% say they distrust Fox.

Fox dominates as a news source for Republicans like no other outlet. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 60% reported getting political news from Fox in the week before the survey, which was conducted from Oct. 29-Nov. 11 and has a margin of error of 1.4 percentage points. Nothing else was close, with second place being held by the three traditional broadcast networks, each at roughly 30%.

Among Democrats, no one source had nearly as dominant a position. CNN got the largest share, with 53% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents saying they had gotten at least some political or election news from that cable network in the past week, but numerous other outlets, including the three broadcast networks, MSNBC, National Public Radio and the New York Times, were not far behind.

Of the news sources tested by Pew, only PBS, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal were trusted more than distrusted on both sides of the political aisle. That trust was somewhat theoretical, however, since none of those three were actually used by even a fifth of those surveyed.

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Life in a news bubble

Outlets with a mostly conservative audience provide very different coverage from those with a mostly liberal audience. This week, for example, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and others provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the impeachment trial in the Senate. Fox has not.

The sources Americans rely on make a profound difference in what they believe about key issues in the impeachment debate, Pew found.

Take the question of why Trump withheld aid from Ukraine last year — the central issue in the impeachment case. Republicans and Democrats differ in how they answer that question. But within each party, the answers also vary depending on how deeply people inhabit a partisan news bubble, the Pew study found.

Among those Republicans who got their news only from sources with a mostly conservative audience, 65% said Trump acted to advance a U.S. policy of reducing corruption in Ukraine, the argument that’s been pushed by the White House and its allies. Just 10% said he acted to advance his political interests, as House Democrats maintain.

Republicans who got their news from a wider array of sources split more closely on that question, with 46% citing an anti-corruption policy and 24% political gain.

The divide among Democrats was a little different. Those who got at least some of their news from outlets with a left-leaning audience said overwhelmingly that Trump acted to advance his political interests, with only a handful, 3% to 4%, saying he acted to advance an anti-corruption motive. That was true whether they got news only from those outlets favored on the left or if they used a wider mix of sources.

Among a smaller group of Democrats who got no news from such outlets, the share who said Trump acted out of political motives dropped to 49%, while 41% said they were unsure and 7% said he acted to combat corruption.

Which sources people relied on also changed how much they recalled hearing about certain story lines in the impeachment debate. For example, Republicans who got news from outlets with right-leaning audiences were far more likely than others to report having heard “a lot” about work for a Ukrainian natural gas company done by Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

They were also much more likely to have heard “a lot” about the former vice president’s efforts to get Ukraine to fire its former top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was widely viewed by officials in the U.S. and Western Europe as corrupt. Trump and his allies have portrayed Biden’s actions as improper.

Asked about Biden’s motivations, Democrats either say he acted to advance the U.S. government’s position or that they don’t know. Majorities of Republicans say Biden acted to protect his son, the study found. The share holding that view rose to 81% among Republicans who inhabit the conservative news bubble.

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What the public thinks

Against that backdrop, is it really any wonder that views of impeachment haven’t changed much?

So, what is the public’s view on impeachment?

The latest numbers come from two respected nonpartisan polling organizations — a separate Pew survey, taken Jan. 6-19, and one done for the Associated Press by NORC on Jan. 16-21. Both were released Wednesday.

The Pew survey found that by 51% to 46%, Americans say Trump should be removed by the Senate. It had a margin of error of 1.3 percentage points. The AP-NORC survey showed a similarly tight division — 45% to 40%, with 14% saying they don’t know enough to have an opinion. That survey had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Is that good news for Trump or bad?

On the one hand, support for his impeachment hasn’t grown since early this fall.

On the other hand, about half the country thinks he should be removed from office. That wasn’t true for President Nixon until shortly before he resigned. And in President Clinton’s case, only about a third of Americans ever supported his impeachment.

Moreover, while only a slight majority favors his removal, Americans’ views of Trump’s overall character have hardened in a negative way. By 63% to 36%, Americans in the Pew survey said Trump had definitely (38%) or probably (25%) acted illegally either in office or while running for office. By 70% to 28% they said he had definitely or probably acted unethically.

Even among Republicans, roughly a third said he had definitely or probably acted illegally, and just under half said he had acted unethically.

For a president seeking reelection, those remain daunting numbers.

The impeachment trial

Trump spent the first part of this week in Davos, Switzerland, claiming credit for the strong U.S. economy but commenting frequently on the impeachment proceedings underway in the Senate, as Chris Megerian reported. His anxiety about the the trial was clear from the intensity of his tweeting — 140 tweets in a single day, a new record, as Noah Bierman and Megerian wrote.

My colleagues examined several other facets of the impeachment drama. David Savage looked at the role being played by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Eli Stokols reported on the sharp difference in approach taken by the House impeachment managers and the president’s legal team.

Megerian and Sarah Wire examined how Rep. Adam B. Schiff has become the public face of the impeachment prosecution — lauded by fellow Democrats and a constant target of Republicans.

And Jennifer Haberkorn reported on how senators cope with the trial’s strict rules: no phones, no coffee and, perhaps worst of all, no talking.

On the campaign trail

Evan Halper and Janet Hook looked at how the four presidential candidates locked in the Senate have retooled their campaign strategies.

Much of that approach involves surrogates. Orange County Rep. Katie Porter, an Iowa native, has emerged as one of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s most prominent surrogates in that state, Melanie Mason reported.

Pete Buttigieg‘s lack of African American support has been much written about, but his failure to gain traction with major labor unions is also a significant potential problem, Matt Pearce wrote.

And Halper took at look at Tom Steyer‘s sharp rise in South Carolina polls and found that, while the huge amount of advertising he has aired clearly has played a role, there’s more than just television exposure behind his momentum in that state.

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