The launch of a federal counterintelligence investigation in summer 2016 into the Donald Trump presidential campaign and Russia had nothing to do with the media: As the New York Times reported, the “driving factors” were the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 plus a Trump campaign aide who had mouthed off about his advance knowledge of the matter. The media had no idea about these events until after they unfolded.
Yet this is 2019, when the media is responsible for everything that happens in the United States. And so a heave of press-oriented criticism has followed the release of a summary by Attorney General William P. Barr indicating that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — who would later take over that investigation — “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia”* in his nearly two-year investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and the role, if any, of the Trump campaign therein. “[T]he media coverage of the Russia investigation was abysmal and self-discrediting — obsessive and hysterical, often suggesting that the smoking gun was right around the corner, sometimes supporting its hoped-for result with erroneous, too-good-to-check reporting,” wrote Rich Lowry in the National Review. “Never has so little come of so many screaming chyrons.”
Dan Gainor on FoxNews.com: “It’s Mueller Time, exposing one of the worst disasters of media bias in history — the false claim that Donald Trump, his campaign or associates colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election.”
In a chapter from his forthcoming book “Hate Inc.," author Matt Taibbi likens the media’s work on Russiagate to the spectacular collapse of a curious media in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of March 2003. “As a purely journalistic failure . . . WMD was a pimple compared to Russiagate,” writes Taibbi, referring to the weapons of mass destruction that never turned up in Iraq. One difference separating the two case studies, he concedes, is that the WMD failure was complicit in the deaths of more than a hundred thousand people. The Mueller investigation didn’t kill anyone as far as we know, though Paul Manafort claims to have gout.
The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald has sharp views on the question:
To abridge the general critique: The media is alleged to have over-covered the Russia-Trump allegations; to have committed various mistakes in reporting on the matter; to have suggested collusion when there wasn’t any; and to have wanted it to be true.
All of those criticisms would be completely persuasive if only there hadn’t been something known as Order No. 3915-2017. Signed by then-Acting Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein in May 2017, the order appointed Mueller as special prosecutor to “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” an imperative that specifically authorized examination of “any links and/or coordination” between the Russian government and President Trump’s successful campaign.
For the past two years, media organizations have conducted what amounts to their own investigation alongside the Mueller staffers. Even before the Mueller investigation got its start, there was plenty to investigate, too, starting with the Trump campaign itself, which was inexplicably deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then came the Steele dossier, which was funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee; it reached the upper levels of the U.S. government and would prove to contain a mix of corroborated and uncorroborated claims.
How about Michael Flynn, President Trump’s first national security adviser? He lied about what he’d told Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transitions about U.S. sanctions toward Russia. Then came the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, a moment when Trump had the Russia thing on his mind, as he later admitted to NBC News’s Lester Holt. “And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won,” Trump said in the interview.
In short, the media pursued Trump and Russia because there was a great deal to pursue. We here at the Erik Wemple Blog won’t rehash every last contortion of the collusion narrative, but consider just two additional moments: The time that Trump asked top intelligence officials to push back against the collusion investigation, and the time that Trump appeared with Putin in Helsinki in July 2018 and credited his counterpart’s contentions about 2016 interference over the assessment of his own government.
Which is to say, Trump himself all but assigned reporters to the collusion beat. A Washington Examiner headline in May 2017 signaled as much: “How Trump brought a dying Russia investigation back to life.” Multiple news outlets — the New York Times, The Post, the Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, TV properties and several others surfaced valuable reporting on TrumpWorld’s interests in Russia and their relation to Mueller’s investigation.
Looking back at coverage of the Russia-Trump investigation, storied investigative reporter Carl Bernstein told Brian Stelter on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources”: “The media, the press has done one of the great reporting jobs in the history,” he said, adding that the “disinformation and lying and mistakes” have come from Trump, not the press. Such praise is excessive. As Taibbi notes, there were mistakes coming from the media as well, none of which can be excused or mitigated by pointing at our mendacious president. ABC News’s Brian Ross, seeking a scoop, reported Trump had told Flynn to contact the Russians during the presidential campaign. Wrong. CNN was forced to retract a story about Trump devotee Anthony Scaramucci and issue a whopping correction about Donald Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks. McClatchy remains on something of a media island in sticking to its reporting that placed Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in Prague in 2016, where he supposedly met with Russian interests. Cohen himself has denied the story in sworn testimony before Congress.
According to the New York Times, “erroneous” news reports indicated that Mueller had subpoenaed records from Deutsche Bank about its dealings with Trump. And those reports, according to the New York Times, prompted Trump to seek the dismissal of Mueller himself. The president ultimately backed off from doing so, leaving in place the fellow who would ultimately clear his campaign of Russia conspiracies.
Mistakes, of course, occur in every profession. They happened in Watergate, too.
But while corrections can remedy mistakes, they can’t remedy volume. Yes, cable news — we’re talking about you. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News — all three of them — poured thousands upon thousands of person hours into shadowing the Mueller investigation. To furnish one notable example, dial back to March 13, when Paul Manafort was scheduled for sentencing in D.C. federal court. CNN treated it like the invasion of Iraq. Said host Jim Sciutto, “Pamela Brown, Shimon Prokupecz, they’re outside the courthouse, and the judge is going to speak for some time before issuing her decision here. And I wonder as we begin to hear those comments, Shimon and Pam, will that give us an idea of where the judge is going with the sentencing?”
As the minutes wore on, CNN provided incremental meaningless updates on the proceedings, like this:
HOST POPPY HARLOW: Just -- sorry to jump in for one minute. Let’s get over to Shimon Prokupecz outside the courthouse. What are you learning, Shimon?
PROKUPECZ: Right. So we’re getting some color from inside court. Obviously this just getting underway in the last few minutes. And a couple of notes here from the judge. She says that what’s happening today cannot be a review or revision of what’s happening in another court. Obviously, given what happened last week with the four-year sentence for Paul Manafort, she addresses that issue. Obviously a lot of people very unhappy about that sentence. She says, whatever happened there is completely separate from what she is going to do today.
An alternative approach to this live coverage may have been to wait until the event had concluded, and then provide a complete story to viewers. But this was part of the Mueller probe. Wall-to-wall was the only architecture available.
The filler-babble on MSNBC was also problematic enough to have facilitated the March 5 exchange below, in which ex-CIA director John Brennan furnished expert speculation:
“I wouldn’t be surprised if, for example, this week on Friday, not knowing anything about it, but Friday is the day that the grand jury indictments come down. And also this Friday is better than next Friday because next Friday is the 15th of March which is the Ides of March,” said Brennan, riffing about Muellerian work rhythms. “And I don’t think Robert Mueller will want to have that dramatic flair of the Ides of March when he is going to be delivering what I think are going to be his indictments, the final indictments, as well as the report that he gives the attorney general.” There were, in fact, no further indictments.
Even when Brennan attempted to diminish his own insider knowledge, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell wouldn’t let him!
BRENNAN: So again, I don’t have any inside knowledge. And I’m not talking with anybody in special counsel’s --
O`DONNELL: Yes, you do. You have the inside knowledge of what began --
On Monday, Brennan said on MSNBC, “I suspected there was more than there actually was.”
For its part, Fox News droned on about the Mueller investigation, too. “Witch hunt,” said host Sean Hannity on Friday night, and Thursday night, and Wednesday night, and Tuesday night, and Monday night. Wonder whether Hannity is preparing an apology for the man who ran the “witch hunt”* that delivered such a welcome conclusion.
Here’s a look at some of the cable-news blahdom:
Stelter on Monday tweeted:
Yes, there are ways to change this. Stop blaming buzz terms such as the “media ecosystem.” Present reporting to the public, then move on to other topics. The country can survive cable-news “analysis” for only so long.
*Correction: This post initially said that the Barr summary cited “no evidence” of such activity. This post has been updated.