The Mueller Hearing Was A Success, The Media Coverage Was A Failure

You've likely seen the headlines calling Mueller's hearings a "dud" or "disappointment." They're focusing on style over substance and they're dead wrong.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. A line from Mueller’s report is shown on the rear screen during the hearing. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. A line from Mueller’s report is shown on the rear screen during the hearing. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

July 24th was the day. Robert Mueller, special counsel of the biggest case of presidential wrongdoing since Watergate, testified before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

Mueller had previously indicated his reluctance to testify, stating he would not deviate from the findings of his report. Even this, however, was an important testimony to provide for several reasons. First, and most importantly, most citizens and voters have not read the Mueller report, and so Mueller’s testimony was important in order to spell out the criminal wrongdoing the Mueller investigation uncovered.

Second, it provided an opportunity to dispel all of the falsehoods President Trump, his administration, and members of the GOP have flouted regarding the report: namely, that the investigation was a hoax, a witch hunt, that there was “no collusion, no obstruction”, and that it ultimately exonerated Trump. Lastly, it was a chance to affirm grounds for impeachment as the means to hold Trump accountable.

On all three counts, Mueller’s testimony delivered. The hearings started with Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) outlining the 11 counts of obstruction of justice that the Mueller team uncovered:

Nadler than went on to debunk all of the Trump administration’s false narratives in his first round of questioning.

His colleagues then sought to affirm how Mueller’s findings established the basis for obstruction of justice, in effect setting up the argument for impeachment.

Mueller provided ample basis for this, indicating that he did not pursue charges against the President only because of memos from the Office of Legal Counsel that dictated that a President cannot be charged for a crime by the Department of Justice. However, he did elucidate two things. First, that his investigation in no way exonerated the president; an important clarification given Republican falsehoods. Mueller went even further, saying Trump could be charged was out of office, a clear indication that the only thing between him and a potential prison cell is the Oval Office.

Second, as he did in the press conference unveiling his report, Mueller did indicate there were means to hold Trump accountable, and that those means lie with Congress. A cursory reading of the Constitution indicates that the mechanism to hold Trump accountable is impeachment.

In the second hearing, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) kicked off the Intelligence Committee hearing by breaking down how Trump’s collusion with Russia, while not criminal, showed disloyalty to the US:

In one of the few times Mueller allowed himself to insert his own opinion, he castigated Trump’s hyping of Wikileaks’ publishing hacked DNC emails, saying “problematic is an understatement”:

In spite of the narrative that nothing new was revealed, Mueller revealed Trump was “generally” untruthful” in his written responses during an exchange with Rep. Val Demings (D-FL):

All the while, questioning from Republicans appeared to lack much rhyme or reason. They repeatedly questioned Robert Mueller over things that were completely outside his purview, from the Christopher Steele dossier to the texts of former FBI agent Peter Strozck. When Mueller would let them know this was not related to his investigation, they seemed stupified.

Then there was former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) who tried to concoct a scenario in which Democrats let Russians collude with Trump in order to the undermine him, in a show reminiscent of the Charlie conspiracy meme:

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This Just In: The Democrats Are in Disarray, Trump Just Said So, Tune Into Our 20 member expert panel to find out how tonight!

So Democrats line up their argument for impeachment, outline Trump’s wrongdoing, and Republicans fail at minimizing it. This is good right?

Not so, according to the talking heads of cable news and the litany of pundits weighing in.

According to them, Mueller’s testimony was an abject failure.

It started even before the first hearing concluded, with journalists at The New York Times expressing in their live-chat that they were seemingly not entertained enough:

And before the second hearing even began, Chuck Todd sounded the alarm over that most pundit-y of talking points:

He wasn’t the only one. From Politico:

For the love of God, someone think of the optics!

It didn’t stop there, with other journalists expressing that they were seemingly not entertained enough:

Then came the hot takes from the clickbait crowd.

The Wall Street Journal called it a dud, USA Today called it “depressing TV”, and just about every pundit talked about how this did not move the needle on impeachment.

Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn talked of how Mueller was “struggling” and “wasn’t up to” testifying, in a gossipy, borderline ageist article, midway through which he himself admits his own take might just possibly be utter drivel.

Vox’s Zacahry Beauchamp reduced down 7 hours of testimony to a winner and losers bit, like hearings of wrongdoing from the White House was an episode of the Bachelor:

The Punditry Circus, Explained

What are we missing here? Deconstructing why the cable news talking heads, the “political experts”, and the MSM analysis pages paint everything with the foam roller of groupthink is important. As much as they would not admit it, this dynamic has a sizable impact on our political process.

So let’s stop for a second and think about what’s really happening.

Start with the dreaded “optics” takes. What is optics anyway? Generally speaking, it’s the perception of how an event or action is perceived by the public. By how do pundits know how something will be perceived in the moment? They don’t have real-time polls being fed to them in their earpieces.

They assume. What the Chuck Todds of the world are saying when they talk about “optics” is what they think people will think. An educated guess is putting it strongly, given they usually base this off of nothing but their own views alone.

Their views on optics do have an effect, however, as they end up impacting public perceptions. Cable news viewers regurgitate pundits’ talking points over the water cooler on Mondays, happy hour drinks on Thursdays, and family dinner on Sundays. By the end of the week, it’s a widely accepted viewpoint, which then gets reported through polling, news articles, and constituent phone calls to politicians. Politicians then act according to what such signaling tells them. The talking heads then comment on that. And on the circle of pundit-fueled assumptions goes.

And when the topic at hand is a process of holding a sitting president to account, this cycle is problematic.

So why do pundits do this? And why is the Mueller hearing a dud in Pundit-Land?

In short, because it garners ratings, access, and keeps up the appearance of false objectivity. And because Mueller does none of those things.

Punditry thrives on soundbites and theatrics. It’s dependent on events or happenings networks can replay and analyze over and over again to fill in a 24 hours news cycle. It’s also reliant on easily digestible mantras that pundits can fall back on to explain any newsworthy event in a way that will keep viewers glued.

When Nancy Pelosi and AOC disagree, we are treated to a full day “Dems in Disarray” marathon.

When the party proposes bold legislation accepted by the majority, we get a panel discussing whether or not they are moving too far to the left or whether this will let Trump win.

Trump, of course, does not need any such scrutiny; he is the ratings golden goose. Between the tweets (those alone elicit a daily reading of the tea leaves by network White House correspondents as to the deeper meaning behind NO COLLUSION! or JUST MET THE PRINCE OF WHALES!), the antics, and the blunders, he provides pundits material for years. And they’ve had no issue taking the material and running with it.

Sure, they will hold Trump to account at times. CNN did not hesitate to call Trump’s tweets telling congresswomen of color “to go back to their countries,” racist. This was, rightfully so, a strong example of the media calling it like it is.

But it was also not hard to do this. The tweets were so blatant and directly racist that they were easy to sensationalize, there wasn’t a need to explain the racism. Not so with all the other times Trump has done racist things, enacted policies that hurt minorities, or even just flat out told lies. Those take a little more explaining, and so don’t get talked about as much. The media, therefore, calls out Trump only when the ratings are there for them to do so.

In this way, they gave Trump a free platform to spread his bigotry and falsehoods, paving the way for his victory and currently setting the stage for his reelection.

Mueller provided none of this. He neither stood up and waved the impeachment banner, nor did he give a full-throated defense of Trump. The terse affirmations of his investigation, the flat statement of opinion on otherwise important matters, none of this makes for good TV. Substance simply does not sell.

Ergo, it’s a dud, and Trump can go on celebrating.

Do We Still Have a Fourth Estate?

Pundits, of course, took a lot of issue with being called out for their hackishness:

Here’s a thought. Instead of blaming your readers for the optics loop you caused, how about doing something about it?

If the substance of Mueller’s testimony is difficult or too dense to comprehend, there is something the talking heads can do.

Their jobs.

They can do what journalists were traditionally trained to do before they spoke of things like optics. That is, take complex issues and distill them for their audience. This was, at one time, the very essence of what we call journalism.

It was a time when such work was not only beneficial to society but a pillar of democracy known as the Fourth Estate. It was the work of journalists to hold politicians to account, to educate the public on the political issues that affect their lives, and to make them care about the issues that affect the lives of others.

Somewhere along the way, through the changes that brought us unlimited online news outlets, clickbait factories, and the 24-hour news cycle, we lost the meaning of such work. Journalism turned into a competition for who can be the loudest mouthpiece rather than who can best explain the world at large to the public.

We cannot afford this any longer. At a time when democracy is under attack, the Fourth Estate is needed now more than ever.

It’s not clear what the optics of good journalism would look like these days though.

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Opinion // Donald Trump / Obstruction Of Justice / Robert Mueller / Russia Investigation / Russian Interference