In political media, as in love, there aren’t many chances to correct a serious wrong.
But the news media will get just that on Wednesday when Robert S. Mueller III testifies before Congress, months after his long-awaited report on Donald Trump and possible Russian collusion to swing the 2016 election was competed.
Recall how gullible — and therefore misleading to the public — the news media was in March when Attorney General William Barr characterized the unreleased report in a four-page letter.
Coverage of that letter set in place an inaccurate narrative that has been almost impossible to dislodge.
Many news organizations, including some of the most prominent, took what Barr said at face value or mischaracterized the report’s findings.
They essentially transmitted to the public — especially in all-important headlines and cable-news bulletins — what President Trump desperately wanted as the takeaway: No collusion; no obstruction.
Not only that, much of the media treatment failed to emphasize sufficiently that this was Barr’s rendering of Mueller’s conclusions.
And many early headlines and tweets went so far as to state that Mueller found no evidence of conspiracy, although that’s not the whole story.
(While the report did not find sufficient evidence to bring charges of criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, it stated that Trump could not be exonerated of trying to obstruct the investigation itself. And it said that Mueller’s conclusions were informed by his reasoning that Trump couldn’t be indicted, at least partly because of a Justice Department opinion against prosecuting a current president.)
Yet here was the Philadelphia Inquirer’s big, bold headline: “No evidence of conspiracy.”
And here was a Bloomberg Markets tweet on March 25: “Now that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has found no evidence that President Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign, the question becomes how much of the news is already baked into markets.”
And the Wall Street Journal — like many others — apparently found no need in its main headline for attribution to Barr. It merely stated: “Mueller Finds No Collusion.” (Barr was mentioned in a much smaller sub-headline.)
And the much-watched “60 Minutes” lead-in on CBS stated baldly that the report exonerated Trump.
The pro-Trump media went much further, of course. The New York Post, in huge red letters, wrote “No Collusion, No Obstruction” — and (implicitly) slammed the media: “Two Years of Hysteria End in Trump Vindication.”
And Trump himself was trumpeting just that, and more, from every available rooftop.
All of this put Barr, as the New York Times’s James Poniewozik put it, in the position of “the editor who writes the clickbait headline for all the browsers who never actually read the piece.”
Those who read the full report, or detailed coverage of its findings, or even the more nuanced, less breathless press coverage, would have come away with a far different view.
As The Washington Post reported in late April, Mueller himself objected to the way Barr’s letter failed to fully capture the “context, nature and substance” of his report.
But by then, it was far too late to change the hardened narrative, or to suggest a more accurate reading, though many have tried.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, in a MSNBC town hall, said she had three takeaways after an intensive, into-the-night reading of the full report:
“Part 1, a hostile foreign government attacked our 2016 elections for the purpose of getting Donald Trump elected. Part 2, then-candidate Donald Trump welcomed that help. And Part 3, when the federal government tried to investigate Part 1 and Part 2, Donald Trump as president delayed, deflected, moved, fired and did everything he could to obstruct justice.”
It is true, of course, that Mueller’s investigation did not bring what many of Trump’s political foes — and some irresponsible media commentators — were hoping for: indictments of Trump or of his closest associates, possibly family members.
It’s also true that some of the media reporting and commentary over the past two years has been over the top: far too speculative about what the report would say and result in.
On Wednesday, the national media will be in “flood the zone” mode as Mueller finally testifies.
Not only will the hearing be carried live on cable news but the major broadcast networks will set aside their regular schedules to do the same. And there will be special reports aplenty, as well as a great deal of newspaper and other text coverage.
Some damage is irretrievable. Many Americans have made up their minds already about Mueller’s findings — and about Trump himself, no matter what he is or does.
And the hearing no doubt will be heavily politicized by questions and concurrent grandstanding from those posing the questions.
But hearing from Mueller directly is important, even if it does nothing other than reiterate what’s in his report. And this new round of media coverage is important, too, if only because it can clarify and drive home what Mueller originally said.
There is an opportunity here to remove a false, cartoon version of Mueller’s investigation and to substitute a well-rendered portrait of a subject that could hardly be more important to the country.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan.