The Mueller investigation introduced a whole new line of inquiry into the analysis of the Media Age and government accountability. It asked a question not often pondered by media and political pundits: does the secrecy of an act define the boundary of a legal or political wrongdoing? This puzzle was brought abruptly into focus by the Mueller’s report, which pointed out that many of the instances under the special counsel’s consideration were conducted in broad daylight. It must have been difficult for the independent counsel to indict a president for the confessing that he was thinking about “this Russia thing” when he decided to terminate FBI director James Comey, given that the statement was made voluntarily to millions of TV viewers. Thus, it is important for political scientists to recalibrate the analytical tools to answer the question: does speaking publicly reduce the offensiveness of an act, which, if committed in private, would arguably have been more reprehensible?
The most balanced and intricate analyses of the “communicative abundance” and democracy points out that the media’s role in holding the government to account is profoundly ambiguous (Keane 2013). The analytical narrative in this case is always a balancing act between the media used by the elites to manipulate public opinion and the media shedding light on the unguarded and candid private moments of the politicians (Green 2009). In one arguable instance, investigative reporting helped suggest an alternative avenue to legal logic. Attorney General Barr argued that no obstruction of justice was committed, because there was no collusion. This conclusion is based on the presumption that the president’s only possible motivation to obstruct the investigation was to prevent collusion from being uncovered. But Vicky Ward’s investigative reporting, and this is how the media aspect comes in, suggests an alternative explanation. The journalist states that it was not the president, who was most keen on dismissing FBI director James Comey, but his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and it was not collusion that Kushner was afraid of, but underlying conflicts of interest. Thus, it is still possible that the president obstructed justice to prevent the uncovering of crimes that were tangentially related to collusion issue, but did not directly stem from it. In making this episode publicly known, investigative reporting truly lived up to the common expectations for a “watchdog,” “virtuous circle” or “information function” of the media. But there is one more function that is not so common, and it is equally important: the “forum connecting function”connects media, public, legal and political forums and enables them to reinforce each other. Here, media logic supplemented or rather replaced the legal logic inherent in Barr’s report by introducing a different type of reasoning that competed with that of the Attorney General.
In other instances, however, the media make the boundary between legal and political wrongdoing murkier rather than clearer. Again, the inquiry introduced on this occasion is very different from conventional avenues of treating the negative effect of the Media Age on government accountability. Traditionally, the negatives would be summed up by either the “tribune function” of the media, which allows politicians to spin their guilt and avoid blame, or the “mediatisation function” of the media, which makes politicians choose policies that click with voters in the short run, even if they are not beneficial in the long run. But the obstruction of justice case does not fit in either of these analytical narratives. Instead, it poses the following conundrum: when a statement is made in the public sphere, and some events, which are thematically related to it, occur afterwards, does this temporal sequence imply or does not imply a causal sequence? It is hard to ascertain whether there is a causal relationship between presidential candidate Trump’s public call for Russia to find Clinton’s emails, on the one hand, and FBI reports that Russian agents activated themselves to pursue this line of action in the immediate aftermath of that statement, on the other hand. Because the causal connection between media statements and real life events is hard to establish, it is subsequently difficult to figure out whether the reverse is true, i.e. whether anybody should feel beholden for a favour that was done to him without personally and secretly asking for it but explicating it on TV. Thus, it remains unclear whether the current president feels indebted to ingratiate US foreign policy with Russia, just because Russian agents have attempted to help his election campaign after watching the president “make a joke” about Russia uncovering Clinton’s stolen emails. We need a debate whetherjust because the request was made on national TV, is it any less blameworthy?
The ambiguity arising from the intersection between the media, politics and the law is embedded in an even greater uncertainty. The Founding Fathers referred to this paradox with the question “who will guard the guardians?” and in the present situation it translates into the following puzzle: how can anyone head an investigation that potentially investigates and incriminates him? Politically speaking, the elected head of state has the authority and indeed the obligation to appoint the people he sees fit to be FBI director and attorney general. Thus, the decision to appoint William Barr, who has written a 19 page memo that in a way prefigures the conclusions of the Mueller report, long before seeing the Mueller report, is undoubtedly President Trump’s prerogative. Legally speaking, however, no one should be put in a situation to investigate himself, even through intermediaries. Given political and legal ambiguity shrouding this investigation, Robert Mueller’s decision to shed the most legally identifiable issues to federal prosecutors and hand the politically fuzzier issues to the attorney general, and possibly, Congress, the public, and, in the long-run, the 2020 electorate, appears reasonable.
One positive takeaway emerges from all the ambiguity. The interconnectedness between media, political and legal issues does contribute to a more fact-based public discourse. If Mueller’s team laid out the evidence on both sides, and based it on an overwhelming number of witness accounts, then the legal contribution is to anchor the ensuing public debate on a factual basis, which would replace the hitherto speculative or even ideological basis of prior discourse. There is one caveat- the Mueller report, just as the Starr report- needs to be made public. If it is the Habermasian “public sphere” will get that much more informed. It is possible that facts would eventually be interpreted in an ideological or political manner, but this would still be a far cry from making up the facts in an ideological or political manner. Legal contributions in the age of spectatorship are not always calibrated in terms of indictments. They can also provide glimpses into unguarded moments of the politicians, which then take a public life of their own.
Dr Gergana Dimova, Lecturer, University of Winchester, United Kingdom