“Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.” Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985: 87)
I spent yesterday watching former special counsel Robert Mueller testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. It’s often difficult to process events like this. Early responses are superficial. We really won’t know the impact of Mueller’s testimony for several news cycles.
To be fair to Mueller, he didn’t want to testify. There was a lot of negotiation between the committee leadership and Mueller’s people to find the right balance in the hearing. Mueller didn’t want to be a media figure reading from his report. The Department of Justice issued guidelines steering him away from questions about the investigation’s origins or other ongoing investigative matters. Mueller himself was clear that he wasn’t going to add interpretative gloss, which he had earlier referred to as “going beyond the four corners of the report.”
Last night, California representative Jackie Speier was on Brian Williams’ “Eleventh Hour”. Asked if she was surprised at Mueller’s taciturn and minimalist style, she said she wasn’t. These were the issues the Intelligence Committee had discussed with Mueller’s team and this is what she expected given those limitations.
By the break of the morning session with the Judiciary Committee, NBC’s Chuck Todd had tweeted “On substance, the Democrats got what they wanted: … But on optics, this was a disaster.” Todd was rightfully roasted by the public editor of the Columbia Journalism Review later in the day, but he actually captured most media sentiment.
“The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. ‘Credibility’ here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impressions of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability, or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. This is a matter of considerable importance for it goes to the question of how truth is perceived on television news shows. If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.” Postman (102)
So the optics are a disaster because Mueller did not come off as Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. I read a couple of references yesterday to the McCarthy hearings: “At long last, sir, have you no decency?” If there was no such moment, could the hearings be worthwhile?
The notion of verisimilitude being primary provided cover for Republican members to frame their favorite conspiracy theories about Mifsud, FISA warrants, and Fusion GPS. Never mind that my Google searches on some of these items (Simpson had dinner with the Russian lawyer!) only showed right-wing media sites. The inquisitors were pushing their sincere outrage at even being in the hearing while maximizing their messaging (“Excuse me Mr. Mueller, I have a limited amount of time remaining.”).
Not that the Democrats were better, especially in the Judiciary Committee. Their attempt to maintain message discipline by referencing each of the ten obstruction examples and ending with their forced litany “no one is above the law” simply underscored the performative aspect of the day.
One of the aspects of modern popular culture that Neil Postman so accurately foretold three decades ago is our reliance on a Good Story. We affix narrative to daily events and treat them as ongoing seasons in a serial drama. President Trump may be a master at incorporating the tropes of reality television (Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran? “We’ll see what happens“) but that’s only because the culture is so accustomed to the idea.
The news media had been telling the story of this ongoing drama with breathless anticipation and countdown clocks. What will happen when Mueller testifies? What will the president say/tweet? Will this be the pivotal moment this story has been building toward?
It was inevitable that the hearings would fall well short of their advance hype. Real life does not measure up to our dramatized imaginings (does anybody actual live like the women in Big Little Lies?).
At the end of the day, we were left with the same key issues one could glean from reading the actual Mueller Report (as Postman would have encouraged): Russian interference, openness to outside information on the part of the Trump campaign, lies to investigators, reluctance to be forthcoming with information, and attempts to impede or obstruct the investigation. Whether these rise to the level of chargeable offenses — regardless of OLC guidelines or legal standards — does not resolve the matters that were in the report. As Congressman Schiff said at the close of the afternoon, these were moral and ethical breaches even if they fell short of legal violations.
At the lunch break between the Judiciary and Intelligence hearings, MSNBC commentator Chuck Rosenberg, former US Attorney and Counsel to FBI Director Mueller, gave the quote of the day: “Sometimes the book is better than the movie.“