Why Robert Mueller Should Testify on TV
On Wednesday morning, Robert S. Mueller III made clear that he was done with this.
He had spent two years on his investigation. There is a report. You can read it for free. You can download it to your Kindle. You can buy it with an introduction by Alan Dershowitz.
Mr. Mueller, his body language practically shouted, did not do this for fun. But he did it. He put everything together. He was not going to come to your house and personally read it to you.
Yet the effects of Mr. Mueller’s grudging TV foray, as zesty as a slice of white toast, showed that coming to our houses and personally reading the report to us is precisely what he should do. At least he should do it virtually, by giving televised testimony to Congress.
Mr. Mueller’s reservations, such as I can guess at them, are likely well-founded. His testimony would be a circus. It would hurl him into the cable TV blab-o-sphere. His words would be spliced and tweaked and twisted in bad faith and maybe digitally altered on Facebook.
But if he honestly believes there was nonpartisan value in investigating the integrity of our elections and of the presidency, then there are good reasons for him to detail out the findings where people will notice them:
Because People Don’t Read
God bless Mr. Mueller for his quaint faith in his fellow citizens, but let’s be honest. This is America. We wait for the movie, or the TV adaptation.
After Mr. Mueller’s appearance, cable news buzzed with a breaking story, long available to anyone with an internet connection, that Mr. Mueller had intimated the possibility that the president had obstructed justice. Democratic candidates — who presumably at least have staff to read reports for them — came out for impeachment proceedings.
After Mr. Mueller submitted his report, he made the doomed assumption of many a longform journalist: That people would read his full work and draw conclusions then and only then. That allowed Attorney General William P. Barr to become the editor who writes the clickbait headline for all the browsers who never actually read the piece.
You can choose not to tell your story in the format people actually pay attention to. You do not get to choose whether it will be told. If there’s interest enough, as Mr. Mueller has now seen, it will be told for you, incompletely, selectively and to someone else’s tastes.
Because Video Changes Things
Fine, some Americans do read. Or they read analyses written by people who did do the reading. Yet even for these hardy print types, there’s a power to images and voices on a screen. Look at the landscape of entertainment TV today. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Catch-22,” “Outlander” — all works based on volumes that are out there for the reading.
It’s human nature to want to see and hear a thing and to be moved by its actual appearance. No sooner had Mr. Mueller spoken than journalists (who, presumably, at least knew his report’s conclusions already) began saying how “huge” it was.
It’s easy to ding them for marveling over something you’d hope they’d already read. But what was huge was that Mr. Mueller chose to emphasize it on camera.
TV events concentrate attention and focus. It’s true of the finale of “Game of Thrones.” And it’s true when the special counsel announces a statement out of the blue. Everything Mr. Mueller said on Wednesday was also true on Tuesday. But it was news on Wednesday.
Because He Doesn’t Want To
There’s a certain Groucho Marx, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member” catch to how people receive public testimony. If you believe you have witnessed a wrong, the conscientious thing is to tell people about it. But the more eagerly and prolifically you tell, the easier for people to paint you as self-aggrandizing or having an agenda. It’s the James Comey factor.
By saying, “I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner,” Mr. Mueller effectively de-Comeyfied himself.
It would be hard to cast Mr. Mueller as a camera-thirsty Michael Avenatti type, though surely someone will try. He has a certain Joe Friday, just-the-facts affect that practically doesn’t exist in this TV age, except for comic effect in figures like the stoic Capt. Holt of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” You will not mistake Mr. Mueller for a “Scandal” character.
This does not make for great TV in the Hollywood sense. It probably reflects a mind-set that made Mr. Mueller stubborn about, or oblivious to, how a TV culture would hijack his narrative. And that mind-set is likely why he fears that “The Mueller Show,” live before a congressional studio audience, would be a polarizing spectacle.
But perversely, that makes him the best person to star in it.