The Media Today

Humanizing Robert Mueller

July 25, 2019

Yesterday, as Robert Mueller testified about his report in marathon sessions before two committees of the House of Representatives, he cut a subdued figure, and the media noticed. Journalists on the right cast him as doddery. The Drudge Report called him “DAZED AND CONFUSED”; Breitbart wrote that he was dodging questions—“if he understands them!” Surprisingly, prominent commentators on the left cast similar aspersions: Mueller, “does not appear as sharp” as he used to, David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist, tweeted. “Finally,” The New Yorker’s Susan B. Glasser wrote, “there was something that Trump-era Washington could agree on: Mueller had bombed.”

News coverage of yesterday’s hearings channeled such concerns: not just about Mueller’s performance, but about his wellbeing. According to outlets such as Politico, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, Mueller was “unwilling or unable, at times, to keep up with the rapid-fire pace and the detailed nature of the questioning”; he showed “an unfamiliar and troubling side… repeatedly asking for help finding quotations from his own report, over and over seeming to struggle to follow questions.” Mueller was “shaky”; “dignified but shaky”; “unmistakably shaky.” His answers were “wobbly”; “He seemed unable even to construct statements of any legal or investigative clarity at all,” Glasser wrote. On the “news side” of Fox News, Chris Wallace said the hearings had been “a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller.” In the Times, a quadruple-bylined piece noted that Mueller’s “once-fabled stamina” had waned; while compiling his report, the paper noted, he had kept “noticeably shorter hours” than he did as director of the FBI, when he would frequently start work at 6am and finish late.

ICYMI: Norah O’Donnell’s ambitious debut

In other words, Mueller is a human being. When we remember that fact, the reviews of his performance—and state of mind—feel harsh, even cruel. The idea that Mueller offered only reedy equivocation isn’t true: his answer, for instance, on Trump’s past praise of WikiLeaks—“Problematic is an understatement”—was firm and went beyond his report. At times, Mueller did stumble over details. But aren’t there simpler explanations for this than thinly veiled insinuations of senility? Mueller’s investigation was a team effort, and his report was long and complex; as one Democratic staffer told BuzzFeed’s Addy Baird, “Who the fuck can memorize 448 pages? At any age, much less 74?” And Mueller never asked to go before lawmakers; in fact, he specifically asked not to. Congressional Democrats had the right to subpoena him, and it’s justifiable that they did so on grounds of transparency and accountability. But what did they expect? A smoking gun? A Hollywood performance for the ages?

Since his appointment as special counsel, Mueller has been “the product of others’ projections: a silent, noble savior to some, a conspiracy-monger to others,” the Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum writes. He assiduously stayed out of the spotlight so as not to become the story, but, as the Post’s Roxanne Roberts put it in December, he only grew “more powerful with every word he [did] not say.” We treated Mueller as a canvas. The right painted a shady figure of hate; the left painted a superhero. Institutionalists and (whisper it) journalists painted an anchor of stoic, by-the-book rectitude as every other rule was ripped up. Mueller got the Simpsons treatment and the SNL treatment: cast members sang “All I want for Christmas is you” at his portrait. If yesterday’s hearings were intended, by Democrats, to be a movie, it’s because they long ago cast Mueller as their matinee idol.

Mueller didn’t fail us yesterday. In a sense, we failed him, by consistently treating him as the infallible voice of God, rather than a real person. Just as it was painful to watch the uncritical veneration of Mueller throughout his investigation, it was painful, yesterday, to watch the opposite, simply because Mueller, in the flesh, couldn’t possibly be all of the different characters that we imagined him to be.

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Inevitably, given how personalized the Mueller story became, the facts of his report got a little lost yesterday. Those facts have not changed just because Mueller failed to dramatize them. Yesterday, amid his monosyllabic affirmations of his report, he issued a quiet reminder that’s pertinent to the press: Russia, he said, meddled in 2016, and is meddling again ahead of 2020, and yet that fact has been “underplayed to a certain extent.” As he fades into retirement, let’s look forward at that, rather than back at the man we thought we knew so well.

Below, more on yesterday’s hearings:

  • Optical delusion: Online yesterday, commentators criticized certain pundits’ obsessive focus with the “optics” of the Mueller hearing at the expense of the facts. Chuck Todd came in for particular scrutiny. Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, weighed in. “Politics isn’t entertainment, it is not a performance to be critiqued,” Bustillos wrote. “Reporting on national politics is a public trust of solemn importance that affects hundreds of millions of people.”
  • Political theater: Glasser, of The New Yorker, had a different take. “The concerns about Mueller’s halting performance were not mere theatre criticism,” she wrote. “Mueller did a disservice to his own work. He did not need to make new assertions of law or fact but merely explain in clear terms the conclusions he reached and why. There was not one moment when he did so.”
  • A prompt, stage right: Several Congressional Republicans took their cues from Fox News as they interrogated Mueller yesterday: many of their questions “were nearly indistinguishable from the claims and accusations that have long been red-meat on Sean Hannity’s show,” The Daily Beast reports. References to Christopher Steele, Joseph Mifsud, and Peter Strzok—right-wing hobby horses all—abounded. Media Matters for America kept track.
  • On the record: Predictably, the hearings devolved into grandstanding. On several occasions, Republicans, in particular, asked Mueller a question, then interrupted his answer because my time is very limited. As he grilled Mueller, Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, entered an article, “Robert Mueller: unmasked,” as evidence for the record. The author of the article? Louie Gohmert.

Other notable stories:

  • Around the time Mueller first took the stand, the Federal Trade Commission detailed how it’s punishing Facebook for privacy violations. As reported, the social giant will pay a $5 billion fine; it must also submit to 20 years of independent oversight at board level, with Mark Zuckerberg to be called, once a year, to personally certify that his company is complying with the FTC’s terms. Facebook said those terms will substantially change its approach to privacy—but, as Bloomberg’s Kurt Wagner and Sarah Frier report, the platform’s existing data and ad practices have mostly been allowed to continue. Later, Facebook confirmed that the FTC is probing it again, this time on antitrust grounds.
  • Last night, facing mounting public pressure, Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, announced via Facebook Live that he will resign at the end of next week. Wanda Vázquez, the island’s secretary of justice, will replace him. Rosselló’s resignation capped a fast-moving day of news. Rosselló was expected to resign, then he wasn’t, then he did; at one point, per David Begnaud, of CBS, officials lured reporters away to allow Rosselló to evade them. The leak, last week, of derogatory messages between Rosselló and his aides led to his ouster. But “it’s not just about the chats,” Begnaud says. “It’s about the decades of corruption… of leadership that has driven this island into bankruptcy.”
  • Earlier this month, Robert Foster, a gubernatorial candidate in Mississippi, refused a ridealong with Larrison Campbell, a reporter with Mississippi Today, because she’s a woman. For CJR, Terricha Phillips reports that Foster’s sexism is not unusual for the state. Donna Ladd, editor of the Jackson Free Press, tells Phillips that “female reporters have left Mississippi because of poor treatment by men they’ve encountered in the field.”
  • In recent years, publications have sprung up across the US that look and sound like traditional news outlets but are, in fact, vehicles for Republican Party talking points. Now, Vice’s David Uberti reports, the Democrats are getting in on the act: Priorities USA, a top Super PAC, will fund outlets in swing states Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida. “This should be covered by local news, but local news is dying,” the group says.
  • Last month, the Supreme Court effectively expanded an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act, giving government contractors more latitude to withhold information from the public on confidentiality grounds. This week, a bipartisan group of senators (dubbed the “FOIA Four” by Politico) introduced a bill that would override the verdict. The bill also targets a new FOIA rule implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • CNN will host the second round of Democratic presidential debates across two nights next week. According to Variety’s Brian Steinberg, the network will profit handsomely off of the broadcasts: potential advertisers were asked to commit to a $300,000 minimum spend on CNN programs before they were permitted to purchase time during the debates, 30 seconds of which is priced around $110,000.
  • And in Mexico, unidentified burglars stole a computer and other reporting equipment from the home of Lydia Cacho Ribeiro—a freelance investigative reporter who has been working on stories about sexual abuse—and killed her dogs while they were at it. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more.

ICYMI: The Chuck Todd show

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.