Two opposing visions of impeachment on US cable news

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Fox News star Sean Hannity with US President Donald Trump in Las Vegas in September 2018

New York (AFP) - A plot against Trump or American democracy at work?  Conservatives glued to Fox News and liberals tuned to MSNBC, America's most watched cable news networks, are getting radically different takes on the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

"A political hit job," "a partisan smear campaign," "a dirty trick from beginning to end" -- from the start of his opening monologue Tuesday evening, Fox News' Sean Hannity hurled thunderbolt after thunderbolt at the proceedings in the US Senate.

Since the 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News has, with rare exceptions, aligned itself with Trump, accusing his Democratic opponents and the mainstream media of being out to get him under any pretext.

For Hannity, Fox News's biggest star, the impeachment trial that got under way Tuesday is the culmination of "a never-ending series of attacks and allegations" that that the president has endured for the past three years.

The Democrats "have been calling for impeachment two days after the president was elected," he said.

Tucker Carlson, the other superstar at the Rupert Murdoch-founded news network, insisted the campaign against Trump has never been about protecting the nation's institutions.

The point of impeachment is "to stall the president's policy agenda. That was the point of the Russia hoax as well," he said

Special counsel Robert Mueller concluded after an 18-month-long probe there was insufficient evidence that Trump's campaign colluded with a covert Russian effort to sway the 2016 election.

Mueller, however, raised instances of obstruction of justice by the president that echo the current impeachment charges alleging he pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political rival, Joe Biden.

Over the past three years, MSNBC has emerged as the counterpoint to Fox News.

Though more sober in tone, its guests on Tuesday depicted the historic day that unfolded in the Senate in entirely different colors.

Former Democratic senator Claire McCaskill declared that the Democratic team making the House's case of abuse of power and obstruction of justice against Trump had "presented compelling evidence."

"The Democrats were very effective in bringing evidence forward today," agreed commentator Michael Steele, a moderate stand-in for the Republican viewpoint.

The impact?

"The cable news landscape does largely reflect the political polarization being faced in America today, as these news outlets try to lock down their most loyal viewers," said Jeff McCall, communications professor at DePauw University in Indiana.

Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an expert on media and politics at Purdue University, says the media's partisanship has hardened since the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 when Fox News was a fledgling cable channel.

"All of this has been building over the past few decades and really you see an intensifying of the partisan landscapes and the way people are reacting to the news," she said.

Judging from the size of the audiences, the public likes watching television personalities push political positions to extremes.

Hannity regularly draws four million viewers, up from an average 3.3 million last year.

MSNBC'S ratings queen, Rachel Maddow, who goes up against her Fox News rival for an hour every evening between 9 and 10 pm, also has broken through the four million viewer threshold several times in January, nearly triple her average audience in 2016.

CNN, which presents itself as the more balanced network, has lagged behind since Trump's election, with half the viewership of MSNBC and a third of Fox News's.

"CNN is squarely in the Trump-resistance lane of media, but just doing a clumsy job of it," and thus unable to attract independents or political moderates, said McCall.

How much influence this partisan approach to information will have on voters is unclear.

"It's a minority of Americans that are watching cable news, of course, but especially with Fox News, the people who are watching are notably the Republican establishment," said Cramer Brownell.

Shaping Republican discourse and agenda "has definitely intensified the power of Fox News," she said.

McCall concurred that the agenda-setting power of cable news "is, indeed, broad."

"I am not convinced, however, that cable news coverage will have a particular impact on the impeachment process, other than to confirm viewers' predispositions," he said.