USA TODAY Published 1:44 p.m. ET July 25, 2019 | Updated 1:59 p.m. ET July 25, 2019
On Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before two House committees on his report of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Mueller movie’s final cut
By Richard Cherwitz
For weeks the news media and political pundits have asked: Will the movie be better than the book? We now have an answer: It depends on which version of Wednesday’s testimony by former special counsel Robert Mueller before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees the public viewed.
Admittedly, the rhetorical expectations set for Mueller were unreasonably high; he has never been a dynamic speaker, and at the age of 74 he is far from a physically animated performer. For whatever reason, he was a reluctant witness. Moreover, it would be difficult for any circumspect person to remember the details of a 448-page nuanced report prepared by a large staff — let alone to succeed in bringing the report to life.
The impact of the highlight reel
Nevertheless, as someone who has spent his 40-plus year career studying and teaching political communication, I believe the rhetorical difference between viewing the entire Mueller hearing versus watching the short highlights reel assembled later in the day by nearly all media venues was profound. The former was tedious, frustrating and certainly not compelling. The latter was surprisingly revealing and extremely potent.
What is clear now is that if Democrats wish the public to pay attention to Mueller’s report, which is required to move the needle on the question of impeachment and influence the outcome of the 2020 election, they should put together a 30- or 60-second video of his most pointed and forceful statements from Wednesday.
After all, it has become increasingly clear that most Americans no longer get their news from the print media. Moreover, in the era of President Donald Trump, the facts don’t speak for themselves. What transpired Wednesday, therefore, reminds us about the enormous rhetorical challenge faced by both political parties: How most convincingly can a message be framed visually?
Alan M. Dershowitz: Mueller testimony was confusing and contradictory
Politicians as marketers
Republicans have done a better job of meeting this challenge. No doubt this at least in part is due to the fact that Trump, as a longtime marketer, as well as his supporters, always seem to be one step ahead of the game, preempting and constraining potential messages of the opposition. Democratic messages appear scattered, uncoordinated and thus less effective.
The potential impact of this rhetorical state of affairs is frightening. Perhaps for one of the first times in our country’s history, the truth and the facts could permanently be undermined and subverted by message sophistication and strategy. And that should be worrisome to all of us who care about democratic deliberation, regardless of our political ideology and affiliation.
Richard Cherwitz is a professor of communication at the University of Texas at Austin.
What others are saying
President Donald Trump, Twitter: “The Democrats lost so big today. Their party is in shambles right now. They’ve got the ‘Squad’ leading their party. They are a mess.”
Noah Bookbinder, The New York Times: “The American people deserve a process that will facilitate a thorough assessment of the evidence presented and the gravity of the president’s misconduct. Far from being a distraction from Congress’ other responsibilities, checking abuses of executive powers is one of its core functions. Trump has spent his entire presidency trying to foreclose the possibility of accountability for his misdeeds. Robert Mueller, in his testimony on Wednesday, made clear that such a path is unacceptable. Congress must take it from here.”
Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review: “Aggression is not the natural language of our political class. Our politicians call for regime change, as if war were a matter of switching office holders. Trump threatened countries with fire, fury and annihilation. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said this week ‘my testosterone sometimes makes me want to feel like punching’ Trump. And in that completely bizarre, and entirely noncredible threat, is the Democrats’ problem heading into 2020. They sometimes feel like fighting. But I suspect they never will.”
Tom Nichols, USA TODAY: “The Republicans once prided themselves on being the toughest opponents of America’s enemies. They have now been reduced to inane babbling about conspiracy theories, excusing the Russians, whitewashing the hostile foreign intelligence service called WikiLeaks, and attacking a man of indisputable honor and probity — a fellow Republican, no less — all in the name of covering Donald Trump’s tracks. … After the Mueller hearings, I have never been prouder to be an ex-Republican. Mueller’s appearance in Congress was a day of shame for the GOP, and it is preview of the tactics we can expect from the former party of national security should its leader ever be called to account before the American people.”
What readers are saying
Mueller was pathetic, and his partisan “investigation” was exposed to its fullest. He could not answer any question; it looked like he wasn’t even aware that the hearing was about his investigation.
— Valera Goetz
We are innocent until proven guilty in this country, yet the Democratic Party thinks Trump is guilty until proven innocent.
— Dennis Tucker
Thank you, Robert Mueller. It was a nice contrast to hear an honest and patriotic American like you speak in Trump’s Washington.
— Jeannie Presler
That “witch hunt” sure did nab a lot of witches.
— Kim Bocaz
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