The Press Has Adopted Trump’s Reality-Show Standards

The reaction to the special counsel’s testimony shows how deeply the president has conditioned the media to treat political events like reality television.

Leah Mills / Reuters

On Wednesday, Robert Mueller testified to the House Judiciary Committee that the president of the United States sought and benefited from Russian interference during the 2016 campaign, and that he attempted to deflect culpability from Russia while lying to the public about his hidden attempts to secure a construction project in Moscow. After winning the election, Mueller testified, the president lied to the special prosecutor, directed subordinates to falsify records, and attempted to exert “undue influence” on law enforcement in order to protect himself and his allies.

In any other administration, in any other time, a special prosecutor, former FBI director, and decorated Marine testifying that the president of the United States was an unprosecuted felon who encouraged and then benefited from an attack on American democracy in pursuit of personal and political gain would bring the country to a grinding halt. But the American political press found Mueller insufficiently dazzling.

The New York Times declared, in language Trump could have written himself, “Mueller’s Performance Was a Departure From His Much-Fabled Stamina.” The Washington Post announced, “On Mueller’s Final Day on the National Stage, a Halting, Faltering Performance,” and, in a separate piece, dubbed Mueller a “weary old man.” Conservative outlets, fond of reciting the president’s grandiose self-assessments of his health and intelligence, openly speculated that Mueller was unwell.

Although other pieces from the same outlets covered the substance of Mueller’s testimony, the conclusion that he had failed to excite his audience framed the totality of coverage. NBC News’s Chuck Todd spoke for much of the political press when he declared, “On substance, Democrats got what they wanted: that Mueller didn’t charge Pres. Trump because of the OLC guidance, that he could be indicted after he leaves office, among other things. But on optics, this was a disaster.” Mueller testified that the president was likely guilty of federal crimes, and the most important American media outlets reviewed his performance like a disappointing late-series episode of Game of Thrones. Mueller did not deliver The Payoff That Was Promised.

In The Washington Post’s opinion section, Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman highlighted two exchanges between Mueller and House Democrats, one with Adam Schiff, the chair of the Intelligence Committee, and the other with Jerrold Nadler, who chairs the Judiciary Committee. The substance of both of these exchanges confirms the seriousness of the charges against the president. Mueller’s interaction with Schiff, in particular, is worth revisiting:

Schiff: Russia committed federal crimes in order to help Donald Trump?

Mueller: You’re talking about the computer crimes charged in our case? Absolutely.

Schiff: Trump campaign officials built their strategy, their messaging strategy, around those stolen documents?

Mueller: Generally, that’s true.

Schiff: And then they lied to cover it up?

Mueller: Generally, that’s true.

A separate exchange with Nadler was equally astonishing:

Nadler: And your investigation actually found, quote, “multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law-enforcement investigations, including the Russian interference and obstruction investigations.” Is that correct?

Mueller: Correct.

Nadler: Now, Director Mueller, can you explain in plain terms what that finding means so the American people can understand it?

Mueller: Well, the finding indicates that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.

Nadler: In fact, you were talking about incidents, quote, “in which the president sought to use his official power outside of usual channels,” unquote, to exert undue influence over your investigations—is that right?

Mueller: That’s correct.

The first exchange confirms that, despite the president’s insistence that there was “no collusion,” his campaign actually built its strategy around exploiting Russian interference. Mueller either lacked sufficient evidence to bring charges or concluded that the campaign’s conduct, however improper, did not violate federal criminal law. The second made clear that the president’s efforts to hamper the inquiry did not result in an obstruction charge not because of a lack of evidence or a lack of criminal violations, but because of Justice Department rules forbidding the prosecution of a sitting president.

All of this, of course, was in Mueller’s report, which most members of Congress still have not read. The press, for its part, first accepted a false summary put forth by Attorney General William Barr, and then largely persisted in repeating his mischaracterizations, even after the bulk of the report was released.

On Wednesday, media outlets had the chance to get the story right. Instead, they largely chose to focus on Mueller’s performance instead of on his findings.

Numerous political reporters insisted, in their defense, that it was the Democrats who foolishly put their hopes in Mueller, who scheduled a public hearing months after the report’s release and expected some kind of dramatic testimony to reshape the narrative and bolster public support for impeachment. This was indeed a foolish strategy, but insisting that this somehow justifies the media’s focus on optics rather than substance, or that the press is not shaping public opinion on this matter, is circular. The Democratic leadership is too weak and cowed to confront Trump forcefully, but those journalists defending the fixation on “optics” are effectively lecturing Democrats for failing to manipulate them as capably as the president does. Indeed, on Thursday, Schiff, who successfully got Mueller to testify to Trump’s wrongdoing, all but gave up on impeachment, saying the only way Trump is leaving office is by being voted out.

The reason the Democrats needed dramatic testimony to begin with was that the press fell for Barr’s false characterization of the Mueller report, declared the president exonerated on that basis, and therefore downplayed both the volume of evidence and the seriousness of the allegations against him. The Democrats’ fear of confronting Trump contributed to press coverage of Mueller’s testimony focusing on “optics,” but the hearing was necessary from the Democrats’ point of view because that preexisting focus on appearances had allowed the Trump administration to mislead the press about what Mueller’s evidence actually showed. The members of the political press understood that this hearing was for their benefit, to get them to report on the substance of Mueller’s charges. Conscious of this, they panned Mueller’s performance, as though he were a singer whose voice had cracked in the middle of an aria.

This is not to say this outcome is entirely the media’s fault. The Democrats’ fear of confrontation, whether through impeachment or aggressive oversight, has communicated to the press that neither the party nor its constituents view any of Trump’s conduct—his embrace of foreign interference with American elections, his illegal hush-money payments to hide his extramarital affairs, his attempts to corrupt federal law enforcement, the coterie of crooks that surrounds him, the squalid camps at the border, the murderous extremists who act on his rhetoric, his rejection of multiracial democracy—as serious enough for genuine sanction or even committed opposition. Whether Democrats realize it or not, that public-facing weakness also affects how the press covers Trump, a feedback loop that makes it harder for them to act.

The near-universal panning of Mueller’s testimony as boring occurred just a week after journalists engaged in extensive hand-wringing and soul-searching when some reporters had the temerity to write that Trump had made textbook racist remarks. The performance of journalistic objectivity is less about facts than about tethering yourself midway between what you believe to be the appropriate poles of public opinion. Having concluded that most Trump voters would not be bothered by Trump’s remarks, reporters could not bring themselves to condemn them, fearing allegations of bias. Having similarly concluded that Mueller’s testimony would not alter public opinion on Trump, and that the Democrats feared meaningful confrontation, they were comfortable panning his performance. But in each case, their characterization of events didn’t simply reflect public opinion—it actively shaped it.

Trump knows this, which is why he is constantly working to undermine public trust in mainstream news outlets. But he needn’t worry too much. If nothing else, the coverage of the Mueller hearing illustrates the extent to which much of the mainstream press has internalized Trump’s own reality-show standards for what counts as a significant political development. All the world is trashy television, and the president and his opposition are merely producers. After three seasons, Russiagate just got old, and the critics got bored with it.

For you hard-core fans out there, however, there’s always the chance of a revival. Mueller warned during his testimony that the Russian government intends to interfere again and that other nations, inspired by Russia’s success, intend to do so as well. The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report Thursday showing that Russia targeted election systems all over the country.

That news came a few hours after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who in 2016 had prevented a bipartisan united front against Russian interference intended to aid Trump, blocked several bills aimed at protecting the nation’s election infrastructure from foreign interference. Whatever comes next, unlike Mueller’s testimony that the president is a crook, at least it won’t be boring. And isn’t that what really matters?