The optics were flawless. The best Hollywood screenwriters and directors could not have produced a better performance. There he was, a black Republican, a decorated war hero and general, a secretary of state who was one of the most trusted men in America telling the United Nations and the world that Iraq likely had a weapons of mass destruction program, that Saddam Hussein was not complying with U.N. efforts to contain it.
If there was a “Rotten Tomatoes” site for political performances, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 presentation making the case for military action in Iraq likely would have registered a 100.
As Gilbert Cranberg, a former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, documented years ago, journalists led the charge in deeming Powell’s performance “a compelling case,” an “overwhelming case,” a “strong, credible and persuasive case,” and that the “core of his argument was unassailable.”
The press didn’t much care about the substance of what Powell said, only that he said it well. Never mind that Powell himself had doubts about the intelligence he was about to sell before he went before the U.N. Never mind that Powell later admitted the episode was one of the biggest mistakes of his career, that much of what he said was found to be false and misleading.
According to the media, he told it well and that’s all that mattered.
The media’s framing of Powell’s performance likely had an effect on the public’s move from lukewarm to strong support for a potential invasion of Iraq.
“The nation‘s press was gaga over Powell’s presentation, extravagantly lauding it despite its heavy reliance on unverifiable sources. One of the sources later proved to be “Curveball,” an Iraqi prevaricator described by a German intelligence official who dealt with him as ‘not an entirely normal person,” Cranberg wrote. “Powell’s most convincing evidence that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction was the recording of an overheard conversation between two Iraqi officers that purported to show them plotting to deceive U.N. weapons inspectors. Powell misrepresented the conversation to make it appear much more incriminating than it actually was.”
Fast forward 16 years to Robert Mueller’s appearance before Congress. Mueller reconfirmed some of the most damning findings of his two-year-long investigation into Russian interference in our democracy. It was already outlined in a more than 400-page report—which most Americans and many journalists have not read.
Mueller said the report did not exonerate President Donald Trump. He said Trump provided “generally” untruthful statements in his written questions. The hearings reiterated that the Trump campaign repeatedly lied and that Trump and others tried or did destroy evidence, so much so that it had a material effect on investigators’ ability to uncover the entire truth.
Yes, Trump tried to get Mueller fired. He said his team decided against even trying to determine if Trump committed a crime because of long-held DOJ guidelines—even as they pulled together detailed evidence of potential obstruction of justice. Mueller said Russia is still trying to undermine our democracy, and that a presidential campaign’s attempts to work with a foreign adversary was not only improper but in some cases criminal.
Mueller said all of that—and more—and it likely represented the first time much of the American public had heard any of it. And, yet, many mainstream, straight news journalists eagerly tweeted that the proceedings were boring and that they would unlikely move the needle on how the public felt about possible impeachment hearings.
Journalists told their audiences that “the optics” were awful, meaning it was a “devastating” day for Democrats. None of them seemed to believe that their personal feelings, that their framing of the proceedings, would actually shape public opinion as much as anything else. Few seemed to recognize that if journalists focused on “the optics” because lawmakers were, then “the optics” would overshadow the substance.
The episode doesn’t only remind me of that Powell performance, but about why I was frozen out of radio and TV appearances for a decade, because I speak with a stutter. It did not much matter to producers and editors what I had to say—even though they got in touch with me because they believed I had something their audiences should hear—only that “the optics” wouldn’t be quite right, that maybe it would be too hard for their listeners and viewers to follow the thoughts of a man who spoke in a sometimes halting cadence, kind of like the way Mueller sounded sitting before Congress.
I read assessments of his “performance” describing him as stammering, another word for stuttering.
Too many of us have fallen into the trap of prioritizing “the optics” above the journalism, which is supposed to be able to focus on the substance even when everyone else is enthralled by the circus. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, we failed on that count because a man cut from central casting, but with faulty facts, seemed so convincing. We are failing again because a man who spent two years gathering damning evidence didn’t look or sound like Charlton Heston on that stage in 2000 at an NRA convention with a gun held high above his head.
Government would have to confiscate that gun from his “cold, dead hands,” Heston roared. It was the kind of “moment” that did not occur during the Mueller hearings, journalists were quick to declare.
All Mueller did was repeatedly point legislators and Americans to a well-detailed report about the ongoing danger of Russian interference in our democracy and numerous instances of wrongdoing by Trump and Trump officials.
His mistake was forgetting to bring a gun and declaring “This is for Russia!” and not caring that acting is more important to much of today’s media than facts.