Media critic

On his Fox News program Monday night, Sean Hannity teed off on the conclusion of the Robert S. Mueller III’s special counsel investigation, which according to Attorney General William P. Barr did not find that the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” Not that you’d know it from years of coverage! raved Hannity: “We’re talking about thousands upon thousands of reports in the opinion and so-called hard news pages alike. That means The Washington Post, the New York Times — believe it or not, they actually won Pulitzer prizes for their lying coverage of the Russia collusion hoax,” he thundered.

Hannity should do a little reading. On Oct. 31, 2016 — one week before the presidential election — the New York Times published an influential story under this headline: “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” The story by Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers landed amid tremendous interest in Trump and the Russians. As a candidate, Trump had made conciliatory gestures toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. And a few weeks earlier, the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence expressed confidence that “the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations,” a clear reference to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other targets.

Such activity notwithstanding, the Times reported in its 10th paragraph:

F.B.I. officials declined to comment on Monday. Intelligence officials have said in interviews over the last six weeks that apparent connections between some of Mr. Trump’s aides and Moscow originally compelled them to open a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Republican presidential candidate. Still, they have said that Mr. Trump himself has not become a target. And no evidence has emerged that would link him or anyone else in his business or political circle directly to Russia’s election operations.

Compare that reporting to a line from Barr’s summary of the Mueller probe: “The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

That summary emerged Sunday, roughly 2½ years after the Times asserted “no clear link.” In that tumultuous interim, the story by Lichtblau and Myers endured repeated and determined exhumations, primarily at the hands of liberals disgusted by the clean bill of health that it accorded Trump just before his historic victory over Clinton. An early salvo came from then-Public Editor Liz Spayd, who wrote a column blasting the newspaper for not being more aggressive about apparent evidence of possible Trump-Russia involvement. “If you know the F.B.I. is investigating, say, a presidential candidate, using significant resources and with explosive consequences, that should be enough to write. Not a ‘gotcha’ story that asserts unsubstantiated facts. But a piece that describes the nature of the investigations, the unexplained but damning leads, with emphasis on what is known and what isn’t,” wrote Spayd, who noted that the FBI was “so serious about its investigation into the server that it asked The Times to delay publication.” She also suggested that David Corn’s early sketch of what would be known later as the Steele dossier in Mother Jones and Franklin Foer’s detailed piece in Slate about mysterious server traffic between a Trump Organization-linked server and a server linked to Russia’s Alfa Bank could have served as a model for the Times.

Critics descended not only on how the Times had abridged the investigation into Russia-Trump stuff, but also on this line from the story: “And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”

That assertion remains in the article, unmolested in its error. Intelligence officials are united in their conclusion that Russia sought to assist Trump. Asked about the claim in a 2017 interview, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said, “We believe that was the case — that was the state of play … I think the government shifted and … came to believe based on classified information that it was an effort to help Trump. Our view is that on Oct. 31, that wasn’t the case.”

In her book “Merchants of Truth,” former Times executive editor Jill Abramson narrates the run-up to the Lichtblau-Myers story, noting that the newspaper had been investigating the same Alfa Bank-Trump Organization story that Foer published in Slate. (Indeed, Foer’s piece noted that the Times was pursuing the story.) After Lichtblau sought comment from Alfa’s reps in Washington, the Trump Organization disabled the server that was allegedly communicating with Alfa Bank — stiffening the journalist’s resolve to publish the story. Baquet stood against it, however, and the Times ceded this piece to Slate.

Bad feelings, as Abramson reports, suffused Times work spaces. “Lichtblau felt miserable and alienated from his editors,” wrote Abramson. “Baquet and his editors were annoyed that Lichtblau had never delivered what they considered to be a convincing and publishable story about the Russia probe.” (Lichtblau later left the newspaper to join CNN and departed after being involved in a retracted story about Anthony Scaramucci.) In their book on Russia-Trump — "Russian Roulette” — Michael Isikoff and David Corn write that it was the editors at the Times who had “cast the absence of a conclusion as the article’s central theme rather than the fact of the investigation itself.”

Abramson concludes in her book that the Times “misstated the seriousness of the government’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and ties to the Trump campaign.”

Even the Times itself criticized the story. In a May 2018 story on the federal probe of Trump-Russia, a team of three Times reporters delivered this verdict: When the Times "tried to assess the state of the investigation in October 2016, law enforcement officials cautioned against drawing any conclusions, resulting in a story that significantly played down the case.”

Or did it? Perhaps all this digging and all this editorial oversight produced an okay piece of journalism, at least on the collusion front. Baquet isn’t celebrating too much. “We were very cautious, as we have been throughout” the Trump era, Baquet told the Erik Wemple Blog on Monday. Some “self-criticism” is important, however: “We were a little too sweeping in our language when we wrote the story. . . . There was no evidence linking the Russia conspiracy directly to Trump and that was accurate. . . . I still think we wrote the story in too sweeping a way, given what we knew at the time,” he says.

What we know now is still limited. Fragmentary pieces from the Mueller report surfaced in Barr’s summary over the weekend. Does the full document address Alfa Bank? Or the early stages of the investigation? “I’m going to assume that Mueller thoroughly investigated Alfa Bank and must not have found anything, though we haven’t seen the report,” Abramson tells the Erik Wemple Blog. Foer tells us: “If there really was no collusion, then you’ve got to assume that whatever that was wasn’t necessarily innocuous but certainly not part of a worst-case scenario.”

David Kris, founder of Culper Partners consulting firm and a former assistant attorney general for national security, says: “Whatever the Times was accused of back then and whatever it apologized for back then, we may be reproducing the same kinds of errors now, as people push or jump to the conclusions that suit their political preferences. A lot remains open still and we have to be patient and wait for a full accounting if and when we get it.”

There is one takeaway, however, that further revelations won’t erode: In recent days, critics of the mainstream media have attacked its nonstop collusion chatter, with Hannity leading this particular chorus. Meanwhile, the New York Times — as well-sourced as any U.S. news outlet on Trump-Russia reporting — published an authoritative “no collusion” investigative story, and it did so one week before the presidential election. The editorial process that birthed this story, furthermore, was filled with agita and bitterness — not about whether the story would help or hurt this candidate or that candidate, but whether it would withstand scrutiny. “Journalism is hard,” says Foer.

As Abramson writes in her book, Clinton herself was excited about what Lichtblau and Myers were about to publish. When an aide showed her the headline, she was “crestfallen.”

Read more:

Erik Wemple: The media had every right to pursue Russia-Trump. But ...

Kathleen Parker: Democrats are seething. Trump is smiling. The show goes on.

Max Boot: Let’s not lose sight of the real scandal: Trump was elected with Russia’s help

Marc A. Thiessen: Were you relieved or disappointed with the Mueller findings? Be honest.

Joe Scarborough: The Mueller war is over — and Trump won