Media critic

This is the first of two posts examining the media dimensions of the Mueller report. You can read Part 2 here.

More than three weeks after the release of the report of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, there’s a lot of chatter about President Trump’s various obstructive acts; about how Attorney General William P. Barr skewed initial coverage with his misleading summary letter of March 24 and other antics; and about the possibility of impeachment.

No one, though, is talking about Footnote 1233 on page 169 of the report’s first volume, which contextualizes an important event of late December 2016: In retaliation for Russia’s interference in the presidential election, the Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Russia. The move by the outgoing president was a matter of great concern to the Trump transition team, and particularly to Michael Flynn, who would soon embark on a short tenure as Trump’s national security adviser.

The footnote chronicles the events of Dec. 29, 2016: “At 2:07 p.m., a Transition Team member texted Flynn a link to a New York Times article about the sanctions.”

The article in question may well have been this one, by New York Times reporter David E. Sanger: “Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Election Hacking.” It details the expulsion of 35 “suspected Russian intelligence operatives” and the closure of two properties allegedly used for Russian intelligence purposes. The nitty-gritty of those moves mattered a great deal to Flynn, who handled Russia matters during the presidential transition. Just weeks into the Trump presidency, Flynn would be fired for how he lied to his peers regarding his discussions about the sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, who was the Russian ambassador at the time.

Good thing Flynn had the New York Times piece handy. Because when you’re about to lie about something, you’d better have your facts straight. In this case, the facts came from an organization routinely slandered by Flynn’s boss. “Trump calls us the 'Failing New York Times and ‘fake news,’ but the reality is that inside, they get very angry at us — but they take us very seriously,” says the Times’s Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller during an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog.

That our country’s leaders rely on U.S. news outlets while conspiring to discredit them is but one of the important media lessons stemming from the special counsel’s report. The hundreds of pages in the report furnish many, many others. Among them: Reporting on Russia’s interference during the 2016 election was strong, though clearly not as detailed and convincing as the document put together by a team of federal prosecutors; reporting on Mueller’s investigation itself as well as its emphases — the question of Russian collusion/conspiracy and obstruction of justice — was accurate in the main, with some very notable exceptions (those will be addressed in the second post); and President Trump — no surprise here — was routinely rattled by coverage of his administration, in large part because it was true.

At a time when the country is obsessed with the media, the Mueller report is the perfect document. Take footnote 562 of the report’s Vol. II: “CNN, for example, began running a chyron at 6:55 p.m. that stated: ‘WASH POST: MUELLER INVESTIGATING TRUMP FOR OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE.’"

Why would the Mueller report note a CNN chyron? Because Trump watches a lot of cable news, and the Mueller team was trying to capture his reactions to news events in the section on obstruction of justice (Vol. II) — where the intent behind the president’s various misdeeds is a critical legal consideration. The report makes this point explicit:

This section summarizes and cites various news stories not for the truth of the information contained in the stories, but rather to place candidate Trump’s response to those stories in context. Volume I of this report analyzes the underlying facts of several relevant events that were reported on by the media during the campaign.

Emphasis was added to highlight a moment of Muellerian officiousness: With one sweeping statement, the special counsel freed himself of responsibility for the factual integrity of more than 200 stories by outlets ranging from Fox News, to the New York Daily News, to the now-defunct Circa News. Very lawyerly.

Yet something interesting happens in the minutiae: The sources consulted by outlets such as The Post, the New York Times, CNN and others end up agreeing with the sources consulted by the Mueller team. One key example is this Times story from Jan. 25, 2018: “Trump Ordered Mueller Fired, but Backed Off When White House Counsel Threatened to Quit.” The meat of the story: “President Trump ordered the firing last June of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, according to four people told of the matter, but ultimately backed down after the White House counsel [Donald McGahn] threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive.”

Not long after that story broke, Trump challenged it. “Fake news, folks. Fake news. A typical New York Times fake story,” he said while attending an economic conference in Davos, Switzerland. One section of the Mueller report said that "the president publicly disputed these accounts, and privately told McGahn that he had simply wanted McGahn to bring conflicts of interest to the Department of Justice’s attention.” Such denialism lives to the present day, in fact. In a Senate appearance on May 1, the attorney general tried to suggest that Trump didn’t have a firing in mind: “McGahn’s version [. . .] is that the instruction said ‘go to [Deputy Attorney General Rod J.] Rosenstein, raise the issue of conflict of interest, and Mueller has to go because of this issue of conflict of interest.’”

No way, says the Mueller report: “Substantial evidence, however, supports the conclusion that the President went further and in fact directed McGahn to call Rosenstein to have the Special Counsel removed.” In other words, the Times story was confirmed.

Another example stems from The Post’s report in June 2017 that the president himself was now under investigation for obstruction of justice. “This was the first public report that the President himself was under investigation by the Special Counsel’ s Office . . .” Again, confirmed.

Also confirmed or credited: Reporting by The Post and the Daily Beast about some strange goings-on in the Seychelles during the presidential transition involving “Trumpworld associate” and Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian fund manager; reporting by The Post about a change to the Republican Party platform regarding Ukraine; reporting by CNN on how U.S. intelligence chiefs had briefed Trump on the Steele dossier during the presidential transition; the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on an effort to track down Hillary Clinton’s missing emails; BuzzFeed’s investigation of the Trump Tower Moscow project; reporting by The Post and the New York Times on the lies told by Michael Flynn; an account by the Smoking Gun of the hacking of the Republican National Committee; a report in The Post about a German hacker with close ties to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange; reporting by the New York Times on the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation; reporting by the New York Times on the extensive cooperation of McGahn with the Mueller investigation, as well as the centrality of Trump’s tweets to the obstruction inquiry; reporting by the New York Times and The Post on the Comey memos, and the president’s dictating of a misleading memo about the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, not to mention the original scoop on that meeting.

The Post and the New York Times dominate the mentions in the Mueller report, accounting for about 100 of the 260-odd media citations. The bylines on the credited stories explain the ubiquity of these two outlets: They have strong staffing both at the White House and on the national security/federal law enforcement front, the very nexus of most of the scoops regarding the Trump-Mueller clash. Citations in the Mueller report, to be sure, are an approximate and by no means perfect stand-in for journalistic enterprise; they omit much good work and, in some cases, merely serve to detail what the media was talking about on a given day.

Whatever the implications, TV networks struggled for a foothold in the fine print. CNN scored 21 credits, for unspectacular items but also for significant exclusives such as the January 2017 blockbuster on how intelligence chiefs had briefed Trump on the Russian dossier. NBC News had a similar haul, one fattened by the much-discussed interview by “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt with President Trump in May 2017. Both CNN and NBC — with a team of 40 staffers in an investigative unit launched in 2017 — deployed substantial reporting teams to report the ins and outs of the investigation.

ABC News earned some scattered mentions. CBS News, with one citation, is eclipsed by the Kyiv Post, with two citations.

Fox News merits its own discussion (see below).

Why the disparity between newspapers and TV networks? Some thoughts: Newspapers place a premium on deeply reported stories, in part because they tend to impress Pulitzer juries. TV people have to spend a great deal of time on logistics — standing around for live shots, getting equipment into place, sitting for makeup and doing panel discussions all day long about something that happened that morning. Visuals rule. Take, for instance, CNN’s stunning footage of FBI agents pooling around the home of Roger Stone upon his arrest during these proceedings. That was an example of visual enterprise — one that fixated the news-consuming public, especially Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. It was not, however, the sort of work credited by the Mueller report.

“I think we’re increasingly in the same space, we’re certainly increasingly in the same goal of trying to uncover the next big thing in this ongoing story, but the nature of TV and the nature of a media organization like The Post tends to be different. . . . We have more resources to put out and they have more needs that come from just being a TV station, so that tends to adjust priorities a little bit,” says Steven Ginsberg, national editor of The Post.

Where’s Fox News?

With about $2.7 billion in operating revenue, Fox News is equipped to invest in investigative journalism, immersion journalism, breaking-news journalism — every sort of journalism.

But, apparently, there’s little demand for such material. The Mueller report credits not a single piece of investigative work among the 16 Fox News and Fox Business Network pieces cited in the report’s footnotes. Many of the hits are interviews conducted by the hosts of "Fox & Friends and by Sean Hannity, perhaps the country’s foremost cheerleader for Trump. Several others stem from interviews with Trump and then-incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus by Chris Wallace, the no-nonsense host of “Fox News Sunday,” during the presidential transition.

Pause the argument to praise Wallace, who makes news all the time because he asks good, precise questions and insists upon getting answers. “Chris Wallace does a better interview of Trump than the New York Times,” says Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who runs EmptyWheel. And even Hannity and “Fox & Friends,” despite their stupendous efforts to propagandize for the president, can’t keep him from ad-libbing incriminating statements. Other high points for the most watched cable-news network include the steady and fact-heavy reports of chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge, along with some noted work on Justice Department maneuvers.

Still: Interviews are what Fox News is bringing to the Mueller table. Rather than engage in investigative journalism, the network prefers to diminish its practice by others. “The Mueller report is probably the single most humiliating thing that has ever happened to the White House Press Corps in the history of this country,” said Carlson. “So how did reporters in Washington respond today when it finally came out? Well, they did what they do best. They celebrated themselves.”

That sentiment was by no means a conceptual scoop. Following the release of Barr’s letter delivering the top-line findings of the Mueller report — Barr claims it wasn’t a “summary” — Federalist co-founder Sean Davis wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “America’s blue-chip journalists botched the entire story, from its birth during the presidential campaign to its final breath Sunday — and they never stopped congratulating themselves for it."

What did other conservative media contribute? For one, a lot of opinionating, like the stuff above. “I think it would be great to have a conservative media that holds this president to account on profligate spending, on ethics and America’s standing in the world. And I would love to see a conservative press that did that with reporting and not just with opinion,” says Noah Shachtman, editor in chief of the Daily Beast.

To judge from the footnotes, Mueller didn’t find much of value among the chin-stroking, right-wing archives. There’s a citation for a National Review opinion story, for example, as well as one for the Washington Examiner, and for Circa News, a now-defunct property of Sinclair Broadcast Group. “The conservative press, to the extent they did any reporting at all, was mostly focused on the pushback [against the investigation], mostly focused on Lisa Page and Peter Strzok,” says Shachtman, noting that holding high-level FBI officials to account is a “real story.”

Just how real? An upcoming investigation by Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general, who has been assessing the propriety of investigative techniques in the Russia probe, should provide a verdict.

Perhaps Horowitz’s report will draw on the work of Chuck Ross, a Daily Caller reporter who took it upon himself to vet the Steele dossier and its origin story, among other Russia-Trump strands. In contrast to all the opinionators in his media niche, Ross mined sources and court documents to chip away at this carefully circumscribed beat. “There are lots of parts of investigation that you would have missed or gotten late if you hadn’t been reading Chuck Ross,” says Wheeler.

In line with Shachtman’s assessment, Ross’s investigative output skewed toward Trump’s exoneration, rather than Trump’s accountability. Asked about that judgment, Ross told the Erik Wemple Blog: “I would have been more than willing or happy to publish stories that added to the idea that there may have been collusion if I came across the information,” says Ross. As it happened, though, Ross found enough information challenging that premise to keep him “occupied."

Indeed: A year ago, Ross played a key role in the outing of FBI source Stefan Halper, whom the reporter described as a “foreign policy expert and Cambridge professor with connections to the CIA and its British counterpart, MI6.” Halper contacted Trump advisers during the 2016 campaign, a revelation that prompted chatter about the government’s alleged “spying” on the MAGA enterprise — and thus, eventually #Spygate. Washington Monthly wrote:

Chuck Ross of The Daily Caller has been the point man in the conservative media for exposing former Washington Monthly book reviewer Stefan Halper as a confidential FBI source. He has collected or received the information about Halper and then transformed it into a narrative form for right-wing audiences. Much of his information has been reported accurately, and he can take credit for breaking a story that is now significant enough that the president of the United States is calling it #SpyGate.

In January 2017, Ross highlighted the denial of Guccifer 2.0 that it was tied to Russian hacking of Democratic entities. The story contained a disclosure that the "hackers also provided exclusives of hacked documents to reporters, including to The Daily Caller.” After the Daily Beast in March 2018 reported that Guccifer 2.0 was, in fact, a Russian intelligence officer, critics pressed Ross for details, prompting this tweeted reply: “everybody. Guccifer 2.0 and his buddies Guccifer 3.0 and Guccifer 3.0s came to the office and sat in on the editorial meeting. we drank vodka and talked hacking, and [s---]. good times.”

Tim Graham, the executive editor of mainstream-media-tracking site NewsBusters, scoffed at the Erik Wemple Blog upon fielding the question of whether the conservative media could be expected to investigate Trump: “To what degree did Brian Williams hold Barack Obama accountable?” he asks.

If nothing else, the Mueller report makes plain that there was plenty of material for media outlets of all orientations — conservative, liberal, mainstream, whatever. Just sample the table of contents for each volume: Between the Russian hackers/bots; the numerous contacts between Trumpites and Russians; the meetings; Trump Tower Moscow; George Papadopoulos, Carter Page and Paul Manafort; and the various obstructive acts that overlay all of the above, it’s a wonder that Mueller wrapped his investigation in 22 months.

Oh, and we left out the case of Peter Smith. In a famous appearance on July 27, 2016, then-candidate Trump expressed his hope that Russia would “find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Hillary Clinton’s much-discussed archives. Following that appeal — which Sean Spicer later tried to pass off as a joke — Flynn contacted people in a quest to track down the correspondence. Among those contacted by Flynn was Smith, an investment banker involved in Republican politics. The Mueller report documents the lengths to which Smith went on this front: “He created a company [named KLS Research], raised tens of thousands of dollars, and recruited security experts and business associates. Smith made claims to others involved in the effort (and those from whom he sought funding) that he was in contact with hackers with ‘ties and affiliations to Russia’ who had access to the emails, and that his efforts were coordinated with the Trump Campaign.”

Well, guess what? According to the report: “Smith drafted multiple emails stating or intimating that he was in contact with Russian hackers. For example, in one such email, Smith claimed that, in August 2016, KLS Research had organized meetings with parties who had access to the deleted Clinton emails, including parties with ‘ties and affiliations to Russia.’ The investigation did not identify evidence that any such meetings occurred.”

So there’s a false claim of collusion — not from the media, but from a Republican operative. Shane Harris, then with the Wall Street Journal but now a Post reporter, nailed this story in June 2017.

Hindsight makes it easy to trash the journalistic frenzy to plumb collusion. Mueller and his investigators, after all, didn’t establish any conspiracy, leaving obstruction as the scandal to emerge from all this sleuthing. The end result, however, doesn’t vacate the righteousness of the quest. Editors and reporters, however, needn’t make this point, because it’s laid out in the Mueller report itself:

Finally, although the evidence of contacts between Campaign officials and Russia affiliated individuals may not have been sufficient to establish or sustain criminal charges, several U.S. persons connected to the Campaign made false statements about those contacts and took other steps to obstruct the Office’s investigation and those of Congress. This Office has therefore charged some of those individuals with making false statements and obstructing justice.

That’s a sophisticated way of saying there was a lot of smoke in the collusion room. “Not only was there a lot of curious behavior, but on top of that, they lied about it over and over and over again. . . . There was no way we were going to sit back and not go after that story as hard as we could,” says New York Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt.

Read more:

Part 2 of this report: More media lessons from the Mueller report

Jasmin Bath: How the Mueller report could end the Trump presidency without impeachment

Greg Sargent: Trump’s new effort to muzzle Mueller gives away his big scam

David E. Kendall: Mueller’s conclusion was a dereliction of his duty

Max Boot: This nation is at the mercy of a criminal administration

Jennifer Rubin: The weird imbalance in post-Mueller report coverage