Late October saw the news that George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe. George who? asked the media when the announcement came down. The answer: Papadopoulos was a former Trump campaign adviser who’d admitted to lying to federal law-enforcement officials about his contacts with Russians.
There was a reason that mainstream media outlets had to scramble on the Papadopoulos story. They had no idea that this development was coming. Mueller & Co., it turns out, don’t leak. “For months, reporters who were covering the Mueller investigation literally didn’t know where his office was, and many don’t,” said veteran journalist-cum-entrepreneur Steve Brill on Sunday’s edition of Brian Stelter’s CNN program, “Reliable Sources.” “So the problem that the president’s defenders have is, they have nothing to argue against, and every time Mueller does something, it comes as a complete surprise, which gives it much more drama.”
In between the indictments and the pleas comes scratching and clawing. Reporters work defense attorneys, White House sources, Beltway insiders — anyone — to push the story along in centimeter increments. Commonly the stories provide details on the sorts of questions that Mueller and his people are posing to people close to the Trump campaign. And it’s just these sorts of stories that Axios’s Mike Allen trashed in a Saturday post under the headline “1 big thing: The Mueller stories worth ignoring“:
There’s a contagion of Washington coverage that isn’t worthy of your time. The stories sound dramatic but tell you little, if anything.
See if you can spot the pattern:
“Source: Mueller looking into what Hicks knows.” (CNN)
“Mueller investigation examining Trump’s apparent efforts to oust Sessions.” (WashP0st)
“Mueller asking if Trump knew about hacked Democratic emails before release.” (NBC)
“Mueller asking about Trump’s Russia business deals and Miss Universe pageant.” (Newsweek)
“Mueller team asks about Trump’s Russian business dealings as he weighed a run for president.” (CNN)
“Mueller looking at Ivanka Trump’s interaction with Russian lawyer at Trump Tower.” (The Hill)
Why it doesn’t matter: All we know is what yappy witnesses tell reporters they were asked about.
News flash: Mueller is looking at everything.
Please note that all of the unworthy stories listed by Allen came from non-Axios outlets. Yet Axios had already published stories that were “worth ignoring,” by its own lofty standards. On Jan. 21, for instance, Axios reporter Jonathan Swan clocked in with this piece: “Scoop: Mueller’s interest in a mysterious White House visitor.” Hey, who cares what Mueller is interested in? Mueller is looking at everything! And late last year, Allen nailed a story about Mueller scoring a whole bunch of transition emails: “Scoop: Mueller obtains ‘tens of thousands’ of Trump transition emails.”
And just a day after establishing its very own worth-ignoring standard, Axios stomped all over it. On Sunday night, Swan debuted “Scoop: Mueller’s hit list.” The beef of the scoop was the subpoena in which Mueller asked a witness for communications with a list of several Team Trumpers, including Stephen K. Bannon, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and others. But hey, Mueller is looking at everything!
On Monday, that scoop would metastasize around the cable dial. Former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg was the recipient of the subpoena, and he told CNN and MSNBC in a round robin of interviews that he would stiff-arm Mueller and his extravagant demands for documents and his free time. He said other things, too — about possible misconduct by President Trump, about his great relationship with Stone, about whether this-or-that anchor thought he’d be thrown in jail, about … well, Nunberg sounded a bit unhinged and contradictory as he held forth. As Andrew Beaujon of Washingtonian pointed out, Axios kept its audience apprised of Nunberg’s breaking-news activity.
Amid all the news that Axios found so compelling, Axios honcho Jim VandeHei decided it was just too tawdry for his sensibilities:
It wasn’t just a tweet, either. VandeHei and Allen wrote a brief on the matter, including this line: “A sad, epic meltdown — a troubled Trump flunky, pecked at and picked apart like roadkill on the Russia Interstate, in his last gasps of public fame and shame,” wrote the pair. Okay, so what’s not newsworthy about that?
Some history sheds light on the hypocrisy afoot in this instance. VandeHei and Allen drove the founding ethos of Politico, the high-RPM site that opened for business in 2007. In deploying young and eager reporters around Capitol Hill, the White House and the federal agencies, VandeHei & Co. saw a complacency in the outlets that had long owned the news in this town. They were too slow. They were too complacent. They still hadn’t adjusted to the Internet.
So Politico cleaned their clocks for a number of years. Among its core strategies was downsizing the definition of a scoop. Whereas The Post or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal may not have fussed over a certain announcement by a senator, a press release from the White House or some other slight development, Politico declared it an exclusive, slapped it on the website and took home the resulting traffic. No angle or permutation was too minor to justify the launch of a brand-new URL.
The Politico-Axios entrepreneurs have two thriving news organizations to their credit. They work like mad and their output matters. As innovators of the scooplet, however, we cannot allow them to scorn the scooplet.