The Media Today

Mueller wants you to read his report. Democrats want you to see the movie.

July 24, 2019

It’s Mueller time again, which, regrettably, means it’s time for news organizations to bring back the phrase “it’s Mueller time.” In about a half hour, Mueller will testify before the House Judiciary Committee; at noon, he’ll do likewise before the House Intelligence Committee. The consecutive sessions will address Mueller’s report in reverse order: House Judiciary will focus on Mueller’s second volume, concerning potential obstruction of justice by the president, whereas House Intelligence will prioritize the first volume, about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Yesterday, we learned that Mueller won’t testify alone: unusually, Aaron Zebley, his longtime aide, will sit alongside him. (Zebley can confer with Mueller in front of House Judiciary; House Intelligence will swear him in as a witness in his own right.) Zebley’s planned presence, The New York Times reports, “injected a taste of uncertainty” before today’s hearings. Opinionators took the license to speculate. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow asked if Mueller “may not be at 100-percent capacity” right now.

In the run-up to the hearings, the Mueller industrial complex of experts and prosecutors-turned-pundits has come out of semi-retirement to weigh in on what Mueller might say. The Times, Politico, and Lawfare, among others, listed questions that they think committee members should ask Mueller. James Comey did the same, also for Lawfare, and has appeared on cable news, too. (Why do Republicans want to investigate the investigators, MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace asked him. “I don’t know,” Comey replied.) This morning, the hearings will be wall-to-wall across cable and the major broadcast networks. (CNN’s New Day has been on the story for three hours already.) “The real question is: are the Democrats gonna grandstand in the House, or are they gonna actually get at the heart of this and say to Mueller, ‘Tell us what your report actually says’?” Neal Katyal, a high-profile lawyer, told Maddow last night. “I think if the American people hear what the report says, as opposed to all the spin about it, it’s gonna be a devastating day for the president.”

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That sounds like wishful thinking (unless, of course, you’re the president). As Peter Baker and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write for the Times, many other observers in Washington “assume it will be more fizzle than sizzle” when Mueller takes the stand; even Adam Schiff, the Democrat who chairs House Intelligence, has downplayed expectations that the hearings will move the needle on public opinion. Barring a big surprise, Mueller will stick to his written report and refuse to venture beyond it—not because there isn’t scope to expand, but because he doesn’t want to, no matter how many CNN contributors implore him to “drop the Yoda act.” In May, Mueller made it clear that he hoped not to be hauled before Congress; on Monday, he reiterated, through a spokesperson, that although he has been subpoenaed, he won’t go beyond the report. This week, Trump’s Justice Department made clear that it, too, expects Mueller to stay within the lines. Liberals cried foul ball—but, as Marcy Wheeler points out, Mueller proactively asked for the guidance. In all likelihood, he will channel the energy of an exasperated parent who wants his kids to do their book report when they just want to watch the movie version instead.

Will the hearings not, as Splinter’s Rebecca Fishbein argues, be “kind of a waste of everybody’s time”? House Democrats are betting that Mueller needn’t say anything revelatory to have an impact: the “power of TV,” they hope, will bring the report—which most people haven’t read—to life. Even this hope, however, is tenuous. Many Americans have long since made up their minds about Mueller’s findings. Weeks before Mueller’s redacted report was made public, Attorney General William Barr had already spun a nothing-to-see-here narrative around it; as The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott puts it, “Bill Barr already won.” According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll out yesterday, fewer than one in five Republicans—many of whom incorrectly think Mueller exonerated Trump—plan to watch today’s hearings. The proportion of “independents” who said they will tune in wasn’t much higher.

Per Reuters, almost half of Democrats do plan to watch. That matters—even if they already made up their minds, too. In many ways, these hearings are for them: rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers will gauge the reaction to Mueller’s testimony among voters as they decide whether to support impeachment proceedings against Trump. However, party leaders—Nancy Pelosi chief among them—remain deeply skeptical of impeachment. Even if today’s hearings inflame the Democratic base, it has no chance of progressing in the GOP-controlled Senate.

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At least for transparency’s sake, it’s welcome that the public will get to hear from Mueller. We should be clear-eyed, however, about the fact that these hearings have much more to do with party politics than the facts of Mueller’s report, which we know already. And it’s politics, not the facts, that will likely determine whether the hearings kickstart a huge new story, or whether—in our manic, crowded news cycle—they’ll be forgotten by this time next week.

Below, more on Mueller:

  • A do-over?: The Post’s Margaret Sullivan argues that the hearings will give outlets that botched Barr’s summary of the report a second chance to get the story right. “There is an opportunity here to remove a false, cartoon version of Mueller’s investigation and to substitute a well-rendered portrait of a subject that could hardly be more important to the country,” she writes.
  • Counterprogramming, part I: Last Wednesday’s rally in North Carolina—at which Trump supporters chanted “Send her back” about Democratic US Rep. Ilhan Omar—was intended to be counterprogramming for Mueller’s hearings, which were originally scheduled for last week. Trump travels to West Virginia today (for a fundraising reception, not a rally). On Monday, he said he did not plan to watch the hearings but “maybe I’ll see a little bit of it.” Judging by his Twitter feed, however, Trump clearly has Mueller on his mind. Watch that space.
  • Counterprogramming, part II: Fox News will carry the hearings live today, despite what you may have heard on MSNBC. The network’s opinion hosts have already started spinning them in the president’s favor. Last night, Sean Hannity proposed questions that Republican committee members might ask Mueller. One example: “When did you first hear about the phony, Clinton-bought-and-paid-for Russian dossier full of Russian lies?”

Other notable stories:

  • Where is Stephanie Grisham? Following her appointment as Trump’s press secretary and communications director, Grisham made headlines when she physically fought to get the media into Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un last month; since then, however, she has kept a low profile, Politico’s Nancy Cook reports. Unlike her predecessor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Grisham has not appeared on Fox News or talked to reporters in the White House driveway; very much like Sanders, she hasn’t given an on-camera press briefing, either. (It’s now 135 days since the last one.) For now, Grisham is molding her communications team behind the scenes, and letting the president do the talking.
  • Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission had divvied up antitrust oversight of big tech firms: Justice was set to take Google and Apple, leaving Facebook and Amazon to the FTC. Now, the Journal’s Brent Kendall reports, Justice is planning a separate, broader antitrust review that could wind up targeting all four companies. For now, the review “will consider the widespread concerns that consumers, businesses, and entrepreneurs have expressed about search, social media, and some retail services online,” Justice confirmed.
  • Frustrated by what it sees as unfair coverage in mainstream outlets, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign has created an in-house media ecosystem to get its message out, the AP’s Juana Summers reports. Its output includes a livestreamed web show called The 99 and a podcast, Hear the Bern, hosted by Briahna Joy Gray, the campaign’s press secretary. The shows are part of “a long-range strategy that looks ahead to a general election matchup with Trump,” Summers writes. Staffers believe that anyone hoping to beat the president has to be able to “challenge Trump’s supremacy on digital platforms.”
  • CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke with Norah O’Donnell about O’Donnell’s ambitious first week in the anchor’s chair on the CBS Evening News. In her first show, O’Donnell put down a marker when she called Trump’s tweets about Democratic Congresswomen of color racist. “It is a historically racist trope,” she told Darrach. “And so, when we were writing the show, we said, ‘They are racist tweets, let’s call them what they are.’”
  • Last year, Mic laid off its entire staff and sold itself to Bustle Digital Group at a knockdown price. Now HuffPost’s Maxwell Strachan is out with a deep look at what went wrong. “Mic may ultimately be held up as a case study on this turbulent era in digital media,” Ellie Krupnick, a former staffer, told Strachan. Of the problems to have hit digital newsrooms, “Mic seems to have found themselves swept up in just about all of them.”
  • For Pacific Standard, Brent Cunningham checks in on the Charleston Gazette-Mail, a storied newspaper in West Virginia that won a Pulitzer in 2017, then declared bankruptcy, then was bought out of family ownership by a group of investors, some of whom have financial ties to the natural-gas industry. That, Cunningham writes, complicates the paper’s coverage of a story that will shape the state’s post-coal future.
  • On Monday, Precious Owolabi, a TV reporter, was killed during clashes between security forces and members of a religious group in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. The confirmation of Owolabi’s death set off “an outpouring of grief on social media,” Danielle Paquette writes for the Post. “One local anchor who reported the story cried on the air.”
  • And Jodi Rudoren, formerly the Jerusalem bureau chief for the Times, has been named editor of The Forward, a Jewish publication. In recent months, The Forward has seen mass layoffs and the death of its print edition; last week, Craig Newmark (who has also donated to CJR) gave it $500,000 to revitalize its website and expand its readership.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.