How the Media Misplayed the Mueller Report

In the years since the 2016 campaign, various media figures and institutions, including the New York Times,haveapologizedfor their shoddy coverageof that election and of Donald Trump. The gist of these sentiments have been that media outlets made a mistake by allowing themselves to be pulled like moths to the flame that was Donald Trump’s strange, unconventional and sensational candidacy, while failing to give enough coverage to his primary opponents and creating a false equivalency between Trump’s scandals and those related to Hillary Clinton. Despite these mistakes, most of the media similarly botched their coverage of Attorney General William Barr’s letter to congressional leaders summarizing the final report by Special Investigator Robert Mueller.

The first line of the Timesheadline the day after Barr’s letter was released read “Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy, but Stops Short of Exonerating President on Russia.” The Washington Post ran a similar headline “No Evidence Trump Campaign Conspired with Russia, attorney general says.” CNN ran excerpts from Barr’s summary, but did so that if you happened to see those graphics with the volume muted, as many who encounter CNN in restaurants, bars, airports and other public places do, suggested the report itself exonerated Donald Trump. In doing this, most of the media missed the real story, which was a very simple one. 

The headlines on March 24thshould have read “Attorney General Hired to Bury Mueller Report, Buries Mueller Report.” It did not require great investigative journalism to understand this, as Trump had made the goal of finding an Attorney General who would help him downplay Mueller’s findings since he began to push the previous Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, out of office a year or so ago. Sessions had run afoul of the President because he recused himself from the investigation shortly after joining the administration. 

Barr’s letter is not abjectly dishonest, but there is a real possibility it is misleading. While the report, in a line cited by the Barr letter “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign considered or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” there is a great deal of grey area between that of total exoneration. Presuming that Barr pulled a quote that confirmed his view of the report, even that line raises questions of whether Mueller found evidence of knowledge of Russia’s activities among the leadership of the Trump campaign, financial ties between Russia and Trump, efforts by the Trump administration to conceal Russia’s activities or anything else. These are extremely important questions, that will only be answered when the report is finally made public. Barr, for his part, has promised to make the report public, but the version that Barr releases could be significantly, and subjectively, redacted.

It is likely that when the report is released, Barr’s initial assessment will be criticized, but that criticism will be of the familiar partisan kind that has circled around this investigation since it started. Attorney General Barr, unlike many of his colleagues in the Trump administration, is an Washington insider and political professional who understands how to spin a story his way. By issuing his letter quickly, he did this very effectively. It has now been almost two weeks since the report was submitted, but we are not discussing the report itself. Rather we are discussing Barr’s letter and treating his deeply political findings as if they tell us something other than very cursory and subjective analyses of the Mueller investigation.

Until Congress, the media, legal scholars and all American citizens have a chance to read the report, we cannot know the central finding, instead we must make do with what Barr believes, for reasons that we can only guess, to be the central finding. Barr has focused on the extent to which Mueller found Donald Trump guilty, or not guilty, of criminal activity. This is extremely important, but it is only part of the story. Another key question, which Barr chose to ignore entirely is the extent to which Mueller found Trump’s actions during and since the campaign has undermined national security, betrayed the public trust, been congenitally dishonest or anything else. These are reasonable questions to ask given what is already public knowledge regarding Trump’s conduct, but by ignoring these questions, Barr has successfully framed the debate around the Mueller report, a document that is long ambiguous and subject to interpretation, in a way that is very friendly to the President.

When the report finally is made public, almost regardless of what it says, supports and apologists for the President will seek to shut down debate citing Barr’s letter which they will claim was the final word. This is a dangerous and circular logic, particularly for a country that aspires to be sovereign and democratic facing a crisis, Russia’s role in the 2016 election, that still has many unanswered questions. However, the media complicity in supporting Barr’s letter will make it much easier for those seeking to stifle further discussion of Russia, Trump and the 2016 election even after the Mueller report is made public. 

Photo: cc/DonkeyHotey