Note: To avoid the very thing some media outlets are being accused of – prematurely jumping to conclusions -- I will make some comments here, knowing that much is subject to change in the months to come, should the situation evolve, new findings emerge if the Mueller report is released to Congress or should other ongoing investigations cast a different light on the situation.
The USA Today headline sitting in news racks across the country last Monday morning read: “No Conspiracy,” just above a photograph of Robert Mueller walking out of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington after attending Sunday services there the day before. After 22 months, the special counsel did not determine that “... members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Although remaining agnostic on the question of obstruction of justice, for political observers and consumers of news this was the end of a long, concerning and emotionally exhausting period of American politics. But, as of late, the media’s role in it all is taking center stage.
Jon Gabriel, the Editor-in-Chief of the conservative platform Ricochet, went to Twitter shortly after word broke that no further indictment was expected: “The news media peddled false info about Russian collusion for two years -- and they made billions doing it. They have every incentive to cook up a new false narrative." These sorts of hot takes might be expected from members of the “conservative team,” but they were joined by many other journalists, including progressives.
Glenn Greenwald shared his thoughts: “Let me just say, [MSNBC] should have their top host on primetime go before the cameras and hang their heads in shame and apologize for lying to people for three straight years, exploiting their fears to great profit.”
Matt Taibbi, an editor at Rolling Stone, made the comparison between the media’s coverage of Mueller and “Weapons of Mass Destruction”: “ ... WMD damaged the media’s reputation. Russiagate may have destroyed it.”
Aaron Maté, writing in The Nation, chimed in: "The implosion of the collusion theory is a humiliation for everyone who promoted it."
Bob Woodward, appearing on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthewslast Monday evening, however, defended the media’s coverage of the probe: “... the media is being criticized now. There was all this hyperventilation about alleged collusion ... I think the media, my newspaper The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times did a very good job with all these allegations and lies out there. There’s no way you’re going to sit at home…”
Fair enough. But it’s hard to deny that there weren’t certain commentators almost willing it all to be true. As one compilation video making the rounds on social media shows, outlets such as MSNBC and CNN were just a bit too fond of apocalyptic proclamations and near-promises that impeachment was imminent. The video, for example, includes more than two minutes of one alarming phrase alone, being repeated again and, again, that “the walls are closing [on President Trump].”
Rachel Maddow, whom The Washington Post's Paul Farhi called "the queen of collusion," dropped approximately 500,000 viewers from the Monday before the probe closed to Monday, March 25th. MSNBC's second most-watched primetime program, The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, saw a similar decline. Even as commentators such as Joe Scarborough generally stood by the press’ coverage of the investigation, he did concede that there were certain "bad actors" in the commentator circuit who wouldn't be invited "back on our show."
Just as Sean Hannity had to acknowledge that he is not a journalist per se, but rather an “advocacy journalist, or an opinion journalist,” it seems similar self-re-characterizations may be requested of others in the media space in the weeks to come.
Taibbi wasn’t alone in wondering aloud if there were legitimate parallels to be drawn between “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and the coverage of Mueller. Back in August, a full seven months before the conclusion of the probe, Jack Hunter, writing in The American Conservative, also made the same bold comparison, suggesting that Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and company unflinchingly bought the Bush administration’s narrative of events hook, line and sinker. But after all, much of the rest of the media did, too. (David Remnick of The New Yorker would later state that his publication’s acceptance of the Bush administration’s position was the greatest regret of his career at the magazine.) And, of course, in 2004, Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of The New York Times, would issue a lengthy apology for the paper’s “institutional” failure of journalism in covering the claims that led to the War in Iraq.
Some, of course, vehemently objected to the comparison, saying that there is no equivalency between a political investigation and a war that led to the deaths of -- estimates vary -- hundreds of thousands. But, in both cases, respected members of the American government and intelligence community went on the record and the media took their words as truth -- whether it be Colin Powell during his 2003 speech to the United Nations or former CIA Director John Brennan, Representative Adam Schiff and the like’s bulletproof confidence that President Trump was at the end of his rope. Even as former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper cautioned that Brennan’s rhetoric had gone too far, the media still continued to give the former CIA Director the most ample airtime, while many hosts seemed all too excited to share in his prognostications.
Who knows what the months ahead will bring? But the degree of certainty displayed by many in the press ought to be cause for concern. Essential to journalism is the need to verify. Recall the old code journalists are supposed to live by: “If your mother tells you she loves you, find a second source.” And this is not even to mention the type of rhetoric employed.
Of course, sensationalism today is used on all sides, and Fox News is no stranger to it, but we need to do better.
For those of us outside of the newsroom, perhaps it’s worth pondering a question posed by Georgetown Law Professor Randy Barnett: “If the Mueller Report finds no collusion with Russia by the sitting president to secure his election -- the charge that induced a special counsel -- how many will consider this to be bad news and be disappointed? How many Trump critics will be relieved their worst fears were untrue?” Say what you want about the President, but the fact that the current executive branch isn’t, in fact, comprised of Russian co-conspirators ought to make us all breathe a collective, national sigh of relief.
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