In My Words: Integrity of impeachment process relies upon being fair

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Associate Professor of Journalism Amanda Sturgill urges members of Congress to rely upon a sense of fairness as they consider impeachment and potentially removing President Trump from office. The column was published by the Charlotte Observer, the Raleigh News & Observer, the Greensboro News & Record, the Burlington Times-News, the Rocky Mount Telegram, the Greenville Daily Reflector and other media outlets.

By Amanda Sturgill

Recently, my 12-year-old got a different kind of lesson from me: how to call your members of Congress.

Amanda Sturgill, associate professor of journalism

I’m trained both as a journalist and as a professor who encourages students of all types to examine their beliefs. I don’t often express my own political opinions, and I didn’t this time. Instead, I asked my senators and representative to do their utmost to ensure that the impeachment and removal proceedings, whatever the outcome, would be fair.

Be fair. We learn as tots that fairness is a virtue – one we loudly demand when we think we are not getting it. In a civil society, we depend on it. We even design statues to honor it.

Justice is blind for a reason.

Looking at the impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives and interviews about the trial in the Senate suggests that those elected are failing now and intend to fail forward when it comes to being fair.

It’s not a new problem. I remember the Clinton impeachment hearings and trial, sitting next to the TV in the student newsroom where I was teaching frustrated by the deceptive arguments. They worked – even today, you will see people discussing that time and saying it was tragic politics that the president was impeached over sex.

That’s not fair. Clinton was accused of lying under oath. People may have different opinions about a president’s conduct and whether it merits removal, but we must tell the truth about what the issues are.

I teach my future journalists that seeking truth is an essential element of the ethics of their profession. That includes figuring out when newsmakers are not being fair to the truth. Good journalists question, add context or sometimes leave those statements out.

Being fair means considering all the evidence, not just the pieces that help you or with which you already agree. Truth is what matters, not winning. Process and character both count, but truth matters most. Here’s how you can tell if these proceedings are done with a sincere effort to be fair.

When people attack someone’s character to keep from having to consider their ideas, that is not fair. Even the little boy who cried wolf was right about wolves once. If you value your sheep, you’ll look at what is said, not who said it.

When people distract from the truth by arguing about unrelated issues, that is not fair. For example, some people are saying that the president’s conduct doesn’t constitute a crime, so it doesn’t matter. That isn’t fair, because impeachment and considering removing an official from office never was a criminal process. It’s like saying the musician did a poor job because you couldn’t understand any lyrics, but the musician is a trombonist.

When people commit in advance to distorting the process, that is not fair. The constitution ensures separation of powers for a reason, and each branch, separately, has a job to do. When the legislative says its actions will be guided by the executive, that’s not fair to their oaths or to the people they were elected to serve. Be fair.

If everyone is fair, no one needs to fear. The truth is what survives a fair process and truth is the basis of justice. Expect your representatives to be fair as you seek to be fair yourself. The republic depends on it.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.