(Update: adding new information)
Walter Isaacson is an award-winning historian and history professor at Tulane University, where he teaches a course called “The History of the Digital Revolution, From Ada [Lovelace] to [Mark] Zuckerberg.” Last semester, he said, he assigned the report from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — mainly Volume 1 — so students could learn how Facebook and Twitter were used by Russians and others to “polarize American society and influence our election.”
“We discussed exactly what the Internet Research Agency did, who helped them, how the social networks responded, what could be done to prevent interference in the future, and what Facebook and Twitter should do,” he said.
Isaacson is not the only educator to use the report — officially titled “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election” — as a focus of discussion in class. Teachers and professors have used it in history classes and in government, law, political science and other courses in high school, college and law school.
Meanwhile, a host of book clubs have been formed to read, learn about and discuss the report, which has been a bestseller. One can be found on the website “Muellerbookclub.com,” which is conducting online readings and discussions of the report. PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking website, has its own free Mueller book club, which does weekly readings from the report, with analysis provided by PolitiFact journalists.
And on a website called Fatherly.com, which is a digital media brand for dads, writer Patrick A. Coleman urged parents to use the Mueller report to teach their kids about democracy. He wrote:
Depending on political affiliation, politically-minded parents across America are either feeling dismayed or justified by the release of the largely toothless Mueller report. But as emotionally invested as some parents were in the findings of the special counsel, there’s a very measured and non-partisan lesson worth teaching kids at this inflection point in Trump’s chaotic presidency. The Mueller report shows, if nothing else, the mechanisms of democracy at work. Even as pundits fume or gloat on cable news, the system is proving out.
Mueller is scheduled to appear Wednesday on Capitol Hill to testify before two House committees.
For those educators who want to use the report but aren’t sure how, there is new material to help from the News Literacy Project, a national education nonprofit that offers nonpartisan programs to teach students how to distinguish truth from fiction in the digital age. Published in the Sift, the News Literacy Project’s weekly guide for educators on digital literacy, the material offers discussion and activity ideas for teachers, which you can read in full below.
Thomas E. Patterson, a professor of government and the press at Harvard University, wrote a 121-page abridged version that, he said, is far more accessible for students, teachers and everybody else than the 448-page redacted version that was publicly released. His book — titled “Summary of the Mueller Report, for those too busy to read it all” — can be found here, with the proceeds being used for social media advertisements to bring the work to a wider audienc
And the Digital Public Library of America and the Internet Archive have released a new linked version of the report fully accessible to the print disabled, which you can find here.
The New York Times’s Learning Network turned it into a teaching moment for educators under this headline: “Learning With: ‘The Mueller Report Is 448 Pages Long. You Need to Know These 7 Key Things.’ ” Atop the article is this warning: “Note to teachers: The main article includes a curse said by the president.”
And teachers are creating their own lessons.
Daniel Lynch is a history and social sciences instructor at the private Marlborough School in California, for grades seven through 12. In an Advanced Placement U.S. History course he was teaching, Lynch said he created a lesson on the Mueller report on the day it was released publicly in April.
“Since there was very little time between the release and our class (about an hour),” he wrote in an email, “I decided to make the lesson a review of impeachment and historic impeachment controversies and then transition to the current controversy.”
First, he said, they reviewed the impeachment process and looked at impeachment controversies involving presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. (Nixon resigned before he could be impeached; the other two were impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate). Then students began to look for sources on the Internet about the release of the Mueller report and later drew Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting the three presidents’ experiences with impeachment.
“We talked about bias and point-of-view of various news outlets and decided as a class to focus on the BBC’s live blogging about the report as the best source for our purposes,” he said. “For homework, students had already found and read an article from what they thought was a reputable source on obstruction of justice allegations against Trump based on information already in the public record. As a class, we listed the allegations already out there and added details coming out from the Mueller report.”
The students “loved” the lesson, he said.
At Missouri Southern State University, William K. Delehanty is an associate professor of political science. He said that last semester he led a class discussion focused on how the Mueller report related to other instances of legal problems for presidential authority.
“In general,” he said, “the American presidency is an institution that has grown in authority over time, and some students focused a great deal on the problem of unconstrained presidential authority, particularly in a political system designed to constrain and limit authority.
“Students were also interested in the notion that a sitting president could not be indicted,” he said. “We spoke at length about how this may give the impression that the presidency (as an office) is above or outside of the legal restrictions that apply to other institutions and the agents within them.”
The report has quickly become a useful tool for law professors.
At the University of Virginia’s law school, Professor Saikrishna Bangalore Prakash said he used the report last semester in a class titled “Presidential Powers” — and his students “were very interested” in it. He said he asked them to read portions of the legal discussion about obstruction of justice and its application to the presidency.
“It raises the question about the extent to which Congress can criminalize the use of presidential powers,” he said. “It also raises the question of whether a federal employee can declare the president committed a crime. Finally, it also raises the question of whether Congress did in fact mean for the obstruction statutes apply to the president.”
Also at the University of Virginia law school, Professors Charles Barzun and Josh Bowers a colleague plan to use the report for their seminar “Rule of Law and Threats to It” this fall, a school spokesman said. At Florida’s Stetson University College of Law, Professor Ellen S. Podgor is planning to teach a new course this fall called “The Mueller Investigation & Beyond."
David Alan Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford University, said he thinks “students should read the report for the same reason everyone in America should read it.”
“It describes the findings of a really important investigation, and it has been widely mischaracterized, including by the president and by the attorney general,” he said.
Here are materials from the News Literacy Project’s weekly guide for teachers, called the Sift, to help teachers lead discussions on the Mueller report:
Lessons from Mueller
While addressing such a complex and controversial topic in the classroom can be daunting, focusing on news literacy issues related to the [Mueller] report can provide educators with a manageable, constructive frame to explore this historic event with students.
First, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate the differences between straight news reporting and opinion writing/commentary. The public reaction to the report . . . also provides a clear example of the power and prevalence of confirmation bias: It was all too easy for people to find news, commentary and social media posts that affirmed their existing views.
Second, while there was surprisingly little misinformation generated about the report itself, the falsehoods that did circulate do offer learning opportunities. BuzzFeed News collected several examples — a hyperpartisan headline bearing a false claim (virality via confirmation bias) and two parody accounts, both of which spread confusion through manipulated text (one a fake CNN headline and one a fake page of the Mueller report — both quite simple to create).
The report also proved the falsity of a conspiracy theory that linked the July 2016 killing of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staff member, to WikiLeaks’ release of stolen DNC emails several weeks later (WikiLeaks actually got the emails from Russian hackers, the report found, and Washington police say they believe that Rich’s death, which remains unsolved, was the result of a robbery gone wrong). In addition, the report contained more details of Russia’s use of social media platforms, starting in 2014, to amplify divisive stories and organize rallies and other events across the United States.
Finally, the report revealed how the White House repeatedly misled or lied to the press and confirmed the accuracy of some news accounts that the president and others had labeled “fake.” (A notable exception was the disputed Jan. 17 BuzzFeed News report that President Donald Trump had instructed his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress in 2017 about negotiations for a potential Trump Tower in Moscow that had taken place during the 2016 presidential campaign. The report found that “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”)
- Discuss: How often do you consciously note when you're reading, watching or listening to opinion columns/commentary versus straight news? In your experience, did Mueller’s report change anyone’s mind about Trump, or were people’s views unchanged? Should platforms suspend or ban accounts that falsely use the names and logos of news outlets in their social media profiles? Is it okay to do so if such accounts are labeled as “satire” or “parody”? Did you catch yourself selectively focusing on details of the Mueller report that aligned with your political views?
- Idea: Have groups of students compare several opinion pieces about Mueller’s report with several straight news pieces (from reputable sources). What differences do they notice?
'The media' and Mueller
On Friday [March 25], special counsel Robert S. Mueller III delivered the report of his investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Attorney General William P. Barr — and yesterday [March 24], as a letter to Senate and House Judiciary Committee leaders, Barr released his four-page summary of that report.
Quoting from Mueller’s report, Barr wrote that “‘[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities’” — even though, as he noted in his letter, there had been “multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”
Much of the published reactions to both Friday’s news that the report called for no new indictments and Sunday’s release of the Barr letter have focused on media coverage of Mueller’s 22-month investigation, which included both Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting and a surfeit of opinions about the possibility of collusion. While author Matt Taibbi described the special counsel’s report as “a deathblow for the reputation of the American news media,” news outlets have stood by their reporting — even after Barr’s summary was released. “It is never our job to determine illegality, but to expose the actions of people in power,” Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, told The Washington Post. “And that’s what we and others have done and will continue to do.”
- “Mueller report paves the way for press criticism” (Maya Kosoff, Columbia Journalism Review)
- “Media stares down ‘reckoning’ after Mueller report underwhelms” (Michael Calderone, Politico)
- Note: The coverage of Barr’s letter and Mueller’s report (and of the investigation that preceded it) presents an important opportunity to discuss the difference between news (straight news reporting) and opinion (including columns, editorials, television commentary and panel discussions). This distinction is often lost when people generalize about “the media.”
- Discuss: How is straight news different from opinion? Can opinions published or broadcast by news outlets contain assumptions that aren’t supported by evidence? Did this investigation deserve all of the straight news coverage it received? Did it deserve all of the attention it received from opinion columnists and commentators? Can the amount or nature of opinions published or broadcast about a subject mislead the public even when the straight news reporting about that subject is accurate?
- Idea: Review with students the coverage of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by the New York Times and The Washington Post — articles for which they were jointly awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting. Then:
- Discuss: Is any of this reporting contradicted by what we know so far about the special counsel’s findings? Do you spot errors that need corrections?