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After big buildup, Mueller testimony is another reminder that TV hearings will not save us

After big buildup, Mueller testimony is another reminder that TV hearings will not save us
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, left, arrives before testifying to the House Judiciary Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in the Rayburn House Office Building on Wednesday in Washington. Mueller, along with former Deputy Special Counsel Aaron Zebley, later testified before the House Intelligence Committee in back-to-back hearings on Capitol Hill. (Alex Wong/Getty)

After a week of much anticipation, the televised congressional hearings that featured former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller ended Wednesday without appearing to have altered our horribly polarized American landscape one bit. And that is a win for President Donald Trump.

Politically, the Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees seemed as divided at the end of the day as they were when Mueller started his testimony seven hours earlier. It is hard to believe most viewers found out anything during the seven hours that they hadn’t known before. And no one created a narrative compelling enough to change hearts or minds.

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As the bright TV lights were turned off and the packed hearing room emptied, we were left in the same bad place from which we entered, with each side spinning a few ambiguous and tenuous comments to suit their fiercely held positions.

And there was Trump, who started the day in an agitated state, according to CNN White House correspondent Kaitlin Collins, still feeling like King of the Hill, tweeting in triumph: “TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!”

Culturally, though, there is an important takeaway to be had from what happened in Congress on Wednesday: We were given another reminder that TV hearings will not save us from the confused and angry political space we now inhabit.

What such hearings mainly have come to do is distract us with a day of political theater that essentially changes nothing. Real political change takes a lot more than bright TV lights and real-time tweets. But most of us are too lost in our social-media-stoked silos to accept that.

We should not need to be reminded of this truth so close on the heels of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Remember those back in September? In the morning it was Christine Blasey-Ford testifying about Kavanaugh and a friend sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers. In the afternoon, it was Kavanaugh disputing the allegations.

It was some of the most intense testimony I have even witnessed in a TV hearing. It was an emotional gut grinder that left many thinking Kavanaugh would never be confirmed at the end of the morning session after Ford testified. But then Kavanaugh’s tearful defense and an angry denunciation of the process by Lindsey Graham flipped the script in the afternoon and Kavanaugh was on his way to the high court.

As I wrote at the time in a column questioning our trust in TV moments, nothing had changed. Trump got his man on the court, and patriarchy still ruled. For all our deep engagement with the televised hearings and feverish social media activity in response, the status quo not only held on but also promised to strengthen that hold with another conservative vote on the Supreme Court.

Wednesday started promising enough with Jerrold Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee skillfully opening the questioning of Mueller with a series of highly focused queries that led to Mueller saying clearly that his report had not exonerated Trump, despite all the tweets in recent months from the president claiming complete exoneration.

The Democrats and those appalled by Trump’s racism, sexism and amoral behavior had their headline, and CNN kept it plastered across the screen most of the morning.

Things looked even brighter when California Congressman Ted Lieu walked Mueller through the three legal steps of obstruction and then got an answer from Mueller that some analysts took to mean that Mueller agreed with the Democrat that Trump’s actions met the definition of obstruction and Mueller only failed to charge the president because of a ruling by the Office of Legal Counsel of the Justice Department saying a sitting president cannot be indicted.

But that was short-lived. At the start of the afternoon session, Mueller clarified his comments by saying that interpretation of his answer to Lieu was incorrect.

“As we say in the report, and as I said at the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime," he said.

If such distinctions were lost on some viewers, that’s understandable. TV is visual medium and we are taught to watch it though the lens of entertainment programming. Appearance matters more than words. That’s why people put on makeup before they go on TV.

Because we have certain expectations of the leading man role the 74-year-old Mueller was cast in, some viewers were surely surprised by what they saw and heard — at least that’s what was being said by some on social media. He looked older, less forceful, clear-eyed and animated than I think some were expecting. He often asked for questions to be repeated, and he had trouble sorting out some of the questions loaded with double negatives that the Republican were asking.

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He seemed to be stronger and more focused as the day wore on, but he was never Gary Cooper in “High Noon," the kind of aging hero many were hoping would bring down Trump with his investigation of the 2016 election.

But that’s on us, and the way we made Mueller into a hero in the media, because he seemed such a perfect antithesis of Trump.

We need to think about that — the way media made this retired former FBI director into a hero who would save democracy, because many in the media and nation needed someone to fill that role as they fumed at the thought of Trump in the Oval Office.

And when we’re done thinking about that, let’s try to figure out why we still think politically and media-constructed events like TV hearings can save us from the terrible place we find ourselves in today.

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