Media critic

The clock started ticking just after 4:00 p.m. on Friday:

And it’s not likely to stop anytime soon. New outlets — for months and months and months — have been speculating about the likely end date of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election being conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Would it end in early 2018? Fall of 2018? February 2019? So many of the forecasts were wrong and now, on March 22, there’s a piece of paper signaling the end.

That document indicates that Mueller has delivered his "confidential report” to Attorney General William P. Barr.

It’s a big deal, marking the culmination of the central news story over nearly the last two years. Every single one of Mueller’s actions has drawn the most searing and protracted media attention, so much so that CNN at one point managed to anticipate one of the investigations targets; it arrived at the Florida home of Roger Stone in time to film a swarm of FBI agents descending on the longtime Trump confidant’s front lawn. So the completion and submission of the report is a big deal.

A big deal, that is, with no beef: Though news outlets have a document indicating that the report has been submitted, they don’t have the report.

Therefore, analysis time! “Chuck, what does tonight mean?” asked MSNBC host Ari Melber of colleague Chuck Todd during the network’s analysis around 6 p.m. on Friday. Todd, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” responded that it signals the start of a “political fight” as well as a “legal fight.”

Over at Fox News, Bret Baier said that correspondent Catherine Herridge had some “new details” on the proceedings, at which point Herridge explained that she had spoken to subjects of the Mueller investigation over the past two years and gathered feedback that she’d agreed to keep to herself until the end of the investigation. With that point reached, Herridge revealed that the subjects had said that Mueller treated various events under its microscope like a “crime scene,” with “every record obtained, reviewed — and witnesses challenged.”

Over at CNN, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin riffed off the detail that Mueller is done issuing indictments. “There’s no better news to receive than you are not being indicted,” said Toobin, noting that there had been a fair bit of suspicion about people such as fringe-right author Jerome Corsi and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son. Toobin had that right: As former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon once said, "They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”

No cable-news outfit, whatever its ideological orientation, has any reason to downplay this moment. If you’re Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson on Fox News, you set the bar high for Mueller, requiring him to prove the most outrageous case of Russia-Trump collusion that a mystery novelist could conjure. And when the report shows something short of that, you declare the whole thing a bust. Otherwise, you can note that multiple Trump associates have been exposed as liars, tax cheats and the like. Mueller provides for all.

And that’s why — as the Erik Wemple Blog was finishing this post — all the channels were still going strong as they worked toward three hours of gabby analysis, “breaking news” bits and speculation. On CNN, legal analyst Joey Jackson was talking about President Trump’s protection from indictment. On MSNBC, Melber was talking to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) about releasing the report. On Fox News the great Chris Wallace was saying, “We’re all tired of this investigation. . . . I think the country at large has been suffering Mueller fatigue, investigation fatigue." It’s also known as cable-news fatigue.

Read more:

Patrick Leahy: Mr. President, beware the mistakes of Richard Nixon

The Post’s View: Mueller has submitted his report. Now Barr must share it with the rest of us.

Harry Litman: The Mueller report will be released, one way or the other

Alex Whiting, Ryan Goodman and Nancy Gertner: Why this one rationale for not releasing the Mueller report won’t fly

David Ignatius: The Mueller report won’t fix the problem underlying it all

Martin Lederman: Why there may be much less — and much more — to the Mueller report than people expect