SALT LAKE CITY — Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusion that President Donald Trump did not conspire with the Russian government during the 2016 election was a relief to many who trusted the president would not commit treason but a disappointment to others who firmly believed he did.
In the wake of these findings, politicians and citizens are blaming the press for misleading the public with more than two years of reporting on links between Trump and Russia, including this map of 100 contacts published recently by The New York Times, that led many to infer the president committed high crimes. Other media figures openly opined, on cable news shows and in editorials, that a conspiracy between Trump and Russia was likely.
Now, conclusions from Mueller's investigation have all but debunked those theories.
“I think Democrats and the liberal media owe the president and they owe the American people an apology,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on NBC. “They wasted two years and created a massive disruption and distraction from things that people — that impact everyone's day-to-day life.”
If Russiagate was a fabricated story, Mueller was the protagonist hero. Deemed “America’s new crush,” by a Vogue columnist, Mueller became a celebrity symbol for Trump-haters, prompting the creation of everything from T-shirts to prayer candles depicting his image. After Attorney General William Barr released a summary of Mueller’s findings Sunday, Trump called for the firing of media members whom he believes made false accusations about him, according to The Washington Post, and proudly repeated, “no collusion.”
But while Barr’s summary clearly stated there was no coordination on election interference, Mueller’s report did not exonerate the president from allegations of obstruction of justice.
Relentless reporting on Trump’s connections to Russia has revealed various scandals, from former national security adviser Michael Flynn's unauthorized meeting with a Russian ambassador to a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow. Ultimately, the Mueller probe resulted in 34 indictments, and experts like Vivian Schiller, chief executive of Civil Media Foundation, say the media played a critical role.
“I reject the notion that high quality news organizations did anything broadly wrong with regard to Mueller. This is one of the most important stories of our time. To not devote significant resources to it would be, and still is, an abdication of duty,” said Schiller, former chief executive of National Public Radio who also held top jobs at NBC and the Times.
Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, defended his paper’s reporting. “I’m comfortable with our coverage,” Baquet told The Washington Post. “It is never our job to determine illegality, but to expose the actions of people in power. And that’s what we and others have done and will continue to do.”
Without a thrilling climax to the story of Russiagate, however, some news consumers have been left wanting. Commentators are already speculating on information that may or may not be included in Mueller's full report (which has not been released) that will fit their own narrative of whether Trump is the villain or the victim.
Christopher Beem, managing director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University, said he believes most journalists acted in good faith in their reporting of the Mueller probe. The problem is people’s perception of truth is increasingly influenced by partisan ideology, he said.
“Looking at the media coverage coming out of the right and left has made me worry. It’s so black and white, before we have even seen the document,” said Beem. “All of us are biased. It is so easy to mistake our own self interest for our objective analysis of what is going on. If we were all more cognizant of that very human, very universal failing, our democracy would work better.”
What is ‘the media’ anyway?
Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway called out The New York Times and The Washington Post Monday on Fox News, saying, “Do you realize major papers in this country won Pulitzer prizes over their reporting on something that is totally fake?” referring to the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting awarded for coverage that “furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign.” Donald Trump Jr. criticized CNN, MSNBC and BuzzFeed news in a statement. But others, particularly on social media, are rallying against the more ambiguous “mainstream media” or “MSM” for shorthand.
Experts like Beem say people who criticize “the media” broadly tend to conflate reliable reporting from established news outlets with opinion pieces, speculation from commentators on cable news shows and pure rumors that circulate on the Internet.
A cottage industry of Mueller watchers and “resistance grifters” have made a name for themselves on social media by spinning conspiracy theories, unpacking obscure details about Trump’s colleagues and their connections to Russia, and making money off of doing so, according to NBC.
“It is pretty clear there are people in the media who ran after the facts, had an expectation and viewed facts through that bias. But I wouldn’t characterize all media in that way,” Beem said. “If you’re going to tag everybody who isn’t Breitbart or Fox as biased liberal media, I don’t think that’s a claim worth taking seriously.”
But even established media companies need to be more careful about publishing unconfirmed rumors, even when they make it clear a statement is opinion or speculation, according to Matt Jordan, professor of Media Studies at Penn State University.
Jordan identified BuzzFeed’s publication of the Steele report as the start of media obsession with Russiagate. The report was produced by former British spy Christopher Steele and contained factual errors and unfounded claims that Trump aide Carter Page had been offered payment to help get sanctions against Russia lifted. BuzzFeed acknowledged the inaccuracies and unconfirmed accusations, but still chose to publish the document in full.
“If the standard is not reporting things you cannot confirm, there has been a lot of reckless reporting,” said Jordan. “There is too much reporting about a figure speculating about this or that, where the story is merely about the fact that someone said or tweeted something and reaction to that thing. This is not good reporting, or at least not reporting that gets us closer to knowing anything.”
Last year, BuzzFeed published another report based on anonymous sources who said Trump directed his attorney Michael Cohen to lie about the Moscow tower project. In response, Mueller’s office released a rare public statement, saying the BuzzFeed article was not accurate. Nonetheless, reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier have stood by the story. Schiller said Buzzfeed is a high quality news organization and trusts the reporters’ sourcing.
According to Jordan, the BuzzFeed article about Cohen is a good example of how incentives in the media industry — clicks and ratings — are set up to reward attention-grabbing stories, even when based on unknown or dubious sources. At the same time, readers look for information that supports deeply held preconceptions.
“I think we as readers and consumers are looking for interesting stories, things that peak our interest,” said Jordan, who proposed more investment in public media as a solution to combat bias. “This is why it is very difficult for the consumer, especially with a news delivery system like digital media that allows us access to all kinds of wildly speculative stories, to stop looking for answers to the story once the questions were asked.”
Despite the difficulty of discerning truth from fiction, Bob Britten, professor of media at West Virginia University, said it’s the people’s responsibility to do so.
“Maybe we don't run a station, but every time you click that share button, you're amplifying someone's signal, and that makes you culpable,” Britten said. “It's hard not to share that amazing headline, but if you're not clicking through to the article, if you're not checking the source, if you're not (and this one's particularly important) questioning the claims that you most want to believe, maybe you need to take a look at your own habits as critically as you do those of the media.”
“Truth takes time, and rumor will outrun it every time if we let it,” Britten added.
Letting us down or making us proud?
While media critics say news reporters have betrayed the public and failed to adequately cover issues that matter like health care and the economy due to their obsession with Russia, others are proud of the work journalists have done to uncover lies and wrongdoing, even if it didn’t lead to evidence that Trump colluded with Russians.
The Hill media reporter, Joe Concha said, “This is a day of reckoning for our media like we haven’t seen since the 2016 election. I would say, maybe the worst day ever for our media given all that coverage.” He added, “Think of the stories we missed as a result of Russia.”
On Twitter, users responded to Mueller’s conclusions with glee, insinuating that reporters will lose their writing jobs with the hashtag #learntocode, a phrase that has been policed by Twitter in the past because its use has amounted to a “targeted harassment campaign” against specific journalists, according to a Twitter statements.
Though not directly related to Russia, Trump's personal attorney, former campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, national security adviser and longtime political adviser have all been convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes, or are currently awaiting trial as a result of Mueller’s probe. Reporting on these cases has restored faith in journalism for some.
“I do worry some news organizations will default to hand-wringing and shun reporting on allegations of wrongdoing by the Trump Administration going forward, which would be a colossal mistake,” said Schiller.
Schiller also fears declining trust in media will lead Trump supporters to reject any negative information about Trump as fake news.
The Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi wrote that Mueller’s conclusions were “a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media,” likening the press’s coverage of the Mueller investigation to coverage of claims by the George W. Bush administration that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction ahead of the U.S. invasion in 2003.
“The press has now handed Trump the mother of campaign issues heading into 2020,” Taibbi wrote. “Nothing Trump is accused of from now on by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population.”
“The danger is that we will become as cynical as (Trump) wants us to be,” said Jordan.
The increasingly partisan nature of news is not new, said Beem. In fact, throughout American history, journalism has been partisan more often than not, he said. Historically, newspapers were printed to promote a particular political viewpoint. The period between the end of WWII and the rise of cable TV was an anomaly in American history, according to Beem, because the scarcity of broadcast and radio stations encouraged a middle of the road, objective approach, he said.87 comments on this story
“Now, you could make the argument that we are returning to the status quo of biased news because of the explosion of media outlets on the Internet,” said Beem.
“At this point, there is a sizable audience that will never believe anything bad about Trump and an equally sizable one that will never believe anything good about him,” said Britten. “Regarding the election, I'd say that if we learned anything from 2016, it's that we need to stay out of the business of claiming to ensure anything.”