The special counsel’s congressional testimony was a piece of television unto itself—a program branded by CNN as “Robert Mueller Hearing” and by MSNBC “Robert Mueller Testifies”—inspiring an eerie feeling of calm. The makers of cable news wanted Mueller to make some news, and he demurred, generally, with the exception of reiterating alarm at the ongoing fact of Russian interference in American elections.
The news cycle began, at six in the morning, with “Morning Joe,” on MSNBC, setting the running tone of the day’s commentary, which combined the implicit bloodthirstiness of boxing analysis and the knowingness of a media-studies seminar. There was talk of the hearings as “a chance for Democrats to tell a story,” and a forecast of legislators hoping for “viral moments.” Some Democratic sources likened the broadcast of the testimony to a movie adaptation of the Mueller report, saying it was destined, by dint of the screen, to draw more eyeballs than its voluminous source material.
The whole day was a postmodern spectacle in search of a focal point. Mueller is very much a pre-postmodern presence. There was a weird energy in watching the members of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, abetted by the whole rhetoric of the ceremony, try to pry a sound bite out of him. In the pluralistic American tradition, each legislator contributed a distinctive voice to the proceedings. These ranged from the orations of Adam Schiff, the chair of the Intelligence Committee, whose opening remarks addressed themselves to history books with sonorous self-consciousness, to Louie Gohmert, the most frothing Republican on the Judiciary Committee, whose unhinged invective you might pause to admire while scanning A.M. radio. The pundits in the studios noted, further, how the Republicans on the committees seemed to be burnishing their clip reels as if pursuing, inexorably, multiyear contracts on Fox News.
Mueller’s verbal dryness, amid the juicy statements, florid grandstanding, and indignant anaphora of his questioners, was like the rustling pages of an old book. I would refer you to the report: the substance of Mueller’s testimony was merely congruent with it. Whenever a questioner tried to put words in his mouth, he said something like, “I’m not certain I agree with your characterization.” I like the perfect reserve of that sentence, which could mean anything between “I respectfully beg to differ” and “fuck you.” You can put Mueller on television, but, apparently, you can’t quite make him do television.
TV grinds on nonetheless. Mueller, in saying nothing to inspire a tabloid-headline-level blow against Trump, instead caused producers to amp up the discussion of “optics.” Pundits reviewed his performance sometimes as theatre critics, sometimes as pageant judges awarding ribbons for carriage and charm. When the testimony was done, there was a general lament that sounded like an unsatisfied thirst for hot conflict. The anchors were like boxing analysts kind of disappointed that a fighter had not drawn blood, concerned about the paucity of dramatic moments. The cable-news narrative was supposedly about what the hearings might do to speed or slow momentum toward impeachment, but, in reality, it was mostly about what the hearings might do to shift the cable-news narrative itself.
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