The special counsel investigation into President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign means different things to many different people. Some view the recently concluded inquiry as an unjust investigation instigated to bring down the president, while others consider it an appropriate exercise in the pursuit of justice.
The special counsel’s inquiry, which concluded on March 22, marks the end of a nearly two-year long investigation into the president’s campaign and any possible links to the Russian Federation. The investigation began as a response to Russia’s attempts to disrupt the 2016 election and concerns that President Trump’s associates may have conspired with the Russian government or that Trump had obstructed justice in his firing of FBI director James Comey.
The investigation offered mixed results. While a number of people close to the president, such as his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former lawyer Michael Cohen, were charged with crimes including tax evasion, lying to the FBI and money laundering, the report concluded no evidence was found that the president colluded with the Russian government. Despite these mixed results, the investigation’s findings illustrate a clear takeaway: focusing undivided attention on potential scandals, such as Russian collusion, leads to destructive forms of polarization and sensationalism.
For months, the investigation, lead by former FBI director Robert Mueller, has consumed the public’s attention largely because of seemingly unending media coverage of the investigation. A statistical analysis of all the news presented by major cable networks in 2018 found that, on average, 3 percent of all coverage mentioned Mueller. While this may not sound particularly high, the data additionally shows it was not uncommon for the Mueller investigation to take up over 10 percent of all coverage on a given day.
Naturally, a certain amount of intrigue and coverage was warranted, considering the implications the investigation posed. However, the sheer amount of regular news coverage the investigation received, in addition to the revelation that there was no collusion between Trump and Russia, shows the issue was greatly overblown.
Meanwhile, as cable news outlets all focused heavily on the investigation, other news was neglected. CNN, for example, only covered President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord for a day and a half, an extremely consequential decision that should’ve been covered extensively because of its environmental and political consequences.
Furthermore, because coverage of sensationalist stories attract viewers, it’s likely cable news outlets publish content relating to Russia and other scandals simply because it’s good business, not because it’s necessary for the American public.
This unending focus on scandals is not confined to major media players. Sensationalist stories also play a sizable role in political discussion among both citizens and politicians. The country’s obsession with a president potentially conspiring with a foreign government is both a symptom and result of extreme political polarization.
This trend of increasing partisanship started in the Watergate era and brought with it not just stark differences in opinion, but an increased likelihood people will demonize others for not agreeing with them.
For example, between 1960 and 2008, the proportion of people who thought members of the other party were selfish more than doubled, jumping from 21 percent to 47 percent. Furthermore, another study found 23 percent of liberals would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a conservative and 30 percent of conservatives would be unhappy if a close relative married a liberal. This increasing tendency to view those with different viewpoints as inherently bad people undoubtedly contributed to the nation’s obsession with the Mueller report. Rather than accepting Trump’s election, those who didn’t agree with him politically longed for a way to prove he was a traitor, despite this being untrue.
This trend of polarization and intense focus on potentially earth-shattering scandals is also present among those charged with running the country. One example of congressional involvement in a politically motivated scandal was the Benghazi scandal. Multiple investigations were launched following the deaths of four Americans in Libya, which consumed 28 months of time as GOP congressional leaders continued to look into Hillary Clinton’s involvement, despite each investigation coming to the same conclusion that Clinton had not committed any wrongdoing.
Much like public response to the Mueller investigation, the Benghazi hearings were characterized by partisan-fueled attempts to paint a powerful political figure as a traitor in order to destroy their reputation and credibility. And while the Mueller investigation lacked the clear partisanship that defined the Benghazi hearings, the gross demonization which accompanies scandals, such as Benghazi and Trump-Russia, leads to further political polarization as media outlets and political pundits fill the informational void with prognostications about what the investigation might reveal.
This type of thinking perpetuated by citizens, politicians and media outlets alike just adds fuel to a partisan fire which has only been getting increasingly intense as time goes on. The best thing for the country at this point would be to move on and focus on issues and values which unite, not divide us.
In light of the Mueller investigation conclusion, it is time for the country to move forward — not just from the report itself, but from a culture of demonization and sensationalism. If we continue to allow the political toxicity that accompanies overblown scandals like the Mueller investigation to flourish, the country will only be further ripped apart.