If you thought yesterday’s testimony from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller was dull and devoid of surprises, wait until you read the coverage.
“The Blockbuster That Wasn’t: Mueller Disappoints the Democrats,” intones The New York Times. “Mueller Answers Trump Taunts in Testimony Unlikely to Change the Political Dynamic,” The Washington Post agrees. “While hearing it from Mueller may change some minds, it’s hard to see any of those facts—which we’ve now known for months—fundamentally altering the narrative,” announces CNN’s Chris Cillizza.
Midway through the hearings, NBC’s Chuck Todd had already proclaimed, “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.”
Call this what you want—theater criticism, optics-obsessed punditry—but it’s far more disappointing than the Mueller hearings themselves, if equally predictable. Presented with a story about Russian interference in the election and shenanigans by the president of the United States, the press has largely ignored some six hours of testimony. Instead of detailing the substance of the hearings, reporters quickly began weighing how they change the odds for impeachment. Did Mueller bring it closer? Did his fumbled performance make it more distant? To do so, they’re analyzing the event as drama.
Most news organizations are not monoliths, and widely differing perspectives are on display at each of the outlets cited—but these are the main analyses by top reporters, and they cluster around the same point. That uniformity may be evidence that it’s correct, or it may be evidence of risky groupthink, or both, but it hardly serves the public well.
And it’s not as if the hearings themselves offered little of substance. Mueller softly but staunchly rejected several oft-repeated lies that President Donald Trump has told about the investigation into him, including that it exonerated him and that he cooperated fully; and he outlined the ways his report, while not explicitly accusing Trump of any crime, lays out in detail how Trump almost certainly obstructed justice.
There are two leading defenses of the theater-criticism approach. Here’s the first, from a plugged-in Congress reporter:
In fact, in scheduling this hearing, Democrats TOLD us it was about optics. Bringing the report to life, they said. They told us very little new would be learned, but having mueller say it would be impactful.— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) July 24, 2019
House Democrats said it was about optics. https://t.co/2PoRF5xwnh
This is true as far as it goes. That’s just not very far. Democrats did frame the hearings around their optics—probably a foolish decision in prospect as well as in retrospect—but the press is under no obligation to accept their narrative. It’s hard to imagine any other situation in which reporters tried to explain away their coverage by saying they’d simply adopted politicians’ spin. And that spin is inside baseball, a meta story about process, and not the most useful thing to convey to the public as the primary takeaway from the event. Don’t shed any tears for Democrats, who set a trap for themselves and walked into it. The victim here is public understanding of the Mueller investigation.
A second, related defense is that there was nothing new in yesterday’s hearings, since Mueller stuck closely to what was in his report, so what was there to write or gab about? This reflects a broader sense of malaise in much of press coverage. Reporters know that Trump is dishonest, volatile, and often violates the law, but they are bored with that and assume the public must be as well, or they can’t find any way to make it seem new, since the same thing has been going on for more than two years.
In fact, that offered the press a mulligan, as Margaret Sullivan pointed out before the hearings. Before Mueller’s report was released, Attorney General William Barr offered a deeply misleading summary of what it said, and many news outlets reported on Barr’s statements uncritically or insufficiently critically.
The shock that many people expressed when Mueller spoke for some 10 minutes on May 29 and summarized his report, noting that “if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” showed how effective Barr’s spin had been. Large portions of the political press, much less the public, seemed not to have read or understood the report. Both anecdotal and polling evidence shows the limited public knowledge of some of Mueller’s key findings.
Reporters could thus have used yesterday’s hearings as a chance to clearly communicate what Mueller found. Instead, they leapt immediately to prognostications about the effect of the hearings on public opinion and on Democratic lawmakers’ appetite for impeachment.
This kind of coverage is more straightforward than wading through the sometimes dry substance of the 448-page report or six hours of hearings, and many journalists presume that the odds-making is of greater interest to readers and viewers. Covering whether impeachment is up or down, what President Trump is tweeting, and what Democrats are saying among themselves is comfortable terrain for many reporters.
But even aside from the substantive problems, this prognostication about how the public will receive a hearing, unrooted in any empirical evidence, is also inherently subjective. While straight-news reporters shy away from all sorts of opinions, they for some reason grant themselves the right to indulge in theater criticism—perhaps because it appears nonpolitical. As Mueller learned yesterday, though, there’s no taking the politics out of politics. Not only are these up-and-down judgments political; they become self-fulfilling prophecies, shaping the political debate they purport to describe, and thus validating reporters’ supposedly nonpolitical conclusions.
Understanding where the House Democratic strategy on holding Trump accountable is headed will be more important in the coming days and weeks. But to analyze and report those decisions without fully understanding and informing the public about the behavior and actions of the president they are seeking to punish is to build a house on shifting sands. The house is all too likely to crumble, like a cheap theater prop.