What Did the Optics Know, And When Did They Show It?

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In this age of visual journalism and social media, much is decided by “optics,” a new term in the political lexicon. Long ago in Watergate time, the information world was ruled by the three television networks and a few major newspapers. Now it’s optics, defined by Google this way: “North American: (typically in a political context) the way in which an event or course of action is perceived by the public.” 

Democrats on Wednesday offered witnesses who exuded patriotism and professionalism and questioners both sober and coordinated. For a viewer unfamiliar with the impeachment process, it had to be impressive—if you stayed tuned-in for two-plus hours of talking heads. 

Republicans were simply out-gunned and forced to reach beyond the facts of the case in search of rebuttals. Their turn to the dramatic—the histrionics and posturing of Jim Jordan of Ohio—only reminded us of the weakness of the GOP bench, at least on this committee.

But how much difference did this make with the large number of people who did not or could not watch the proceeding, but relied on sound bites from cable or network news? The war rooms on both sides should now be looking at tapes of their spokespersons. Adam Schiff continues to impress, as does Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but no such stars have emerged on the GOP roster; certainly not Devin Nunes or Jordan. Bad optics: sour and posturing.

It was the Republican Howard Baker who provided the optics for the Senate’s Watergate investigation of 1973: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Thus did a Nixon loyalist open the floodgates that swept Nixon from the White House. If there is a present-day Howard Baker, he or she has yet to emerge. It would be a memorable optic.

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Floyd J. McKay, emeritus professor of journalism at Western Washington University, covered Pacific Northwest politics as a reporter and opinion writer for four decades, primarily in Oregon. He was commentator/news analyst at KGW-TV (King Broadcasting) from 1970 to 1987. Previously a print reporter, he returned to print and online reporting and commentary from 2004 to 2017 with the Seattle Times Op-ed page and Crosscut.com. He is the author of Reporting the Oregon Story: How Activists and Visionaries Transformed a State (Oregon State University Press, 2016). He lives in Bellingham.

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