Sifting through the Mueller fallout: How did the media do?

April 19, 2019
Category: Newsletters

On Wednesday, a day before the Mueller report was released, media analysts cautioned journalists to not rush to judgement in their coverage.

Read the whole report. Take your time. Get all the facts in order before reacting.

How did the media do when the report was released Thursday?

Well, as you can see by the photos below, the major TV stations started commenting while reading the report. In a bizarre scene that played out on pretty much every news station mere minutes after the report was released, on-air commentators were literally reading the report while talking about it, often stopping to try and understand what they had just read.

(Photos by Tom Jones)

It was like doing a comprehensive book report in the middle of actually reading the book. It certainly made for great theater. But did it make for good journalism?

To be fair, the media didn’t have a choice. The report was out. Viewers wanted to know what was in it. It’s the media’s job to report the news. Accurately, yes. But quickly, too. The expectation wasn’t for the networks to say, “OK, give us a couple of hours to sift through this and we’ll get back to you. Meanwhile, here’s what else is happening today.”

If the networks are going to plow ahead with coverage, they have to do it responsibly. Most of the networks’ coverage, particularly in the hours immediately after the report became public, was grounded in fact rather than opinion.

There were, of course, moments when commentators and guests put their spin on the day and concluded that President Donald Trump was either cleared or guilty of conspiracy and/or obstruction. The worst example was Fox News’ Laura Ingraham going on the air less than an hour after the report was released and declaring that it was a triumphant day for the president even though she said she had just finished recording her podcast, meaning she could not have possibly read the 448-page report.

Before the report was even released, Ingraham showed her support of Attorney General William Barr by tweeting:

This was after mocking the media for not asking smart questions during the Barr news conference.

It’s those moments — when networks turn their airways over to pundits who often have a rooting interest — that coverage becomes troublesome. But when the networks relied on reporters to relay the prominent parts as they came across them, the coverage was good, fair and responsible.

The right side of history

A subplot of Thursday’s Mueller report was how the media was portrayed. After two years of working on this story — and mixed reaction to whether the media has done a good or irresponsible job — the feeling Thursday was that the Mueller report confirmed much of what the media has been reporting.

Toronto Star Washington correspondent Daniel Dale tweeted:

Then again, Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway said, “We’re accepting apologies today, too, for anyone who feels the grace in offering them.”

No one in the media offered any apologies.

FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver tweeted:

CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz said that the Mueller report “really corroborated a lot of the good journalism that was done.”

‘Lie’ in wait

Screenshot, BuzzFeed News

Back in January, BuzzFeed News dropped a bombshell story that said Trump had directed longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his business dealings with Russia.

The Mueller report disputes BuzzFeed News’ claims. The report said there was evidence that Trump knew Cohen had provided Congress with false testimony, but said, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”

Not everything Thursday involved the Mueller report. Here’s what else caught my attention …

Hail, no

Bad weather was on the way. Meteorologists in the Dallas area warned of severe storms: hail, 70-mph winds and maybe even tornadoes. Some schools closed early. Hundreds of flights were cancelled.

Then nothing happened. Just light rain.

Evan Andrews, a meteorologist on one of the Dallas TV stations, tweeted: “We blew it and we do apologize.”

So what gives?

Another Dallas TV meteorologist, Rick Mitchell, was quoted in the Dallas Morning News saying, “The easy answer is the weather changed.”

Then Mitchell told the Dallas Morning News something interesting: “As a meteorologist, I’m always torn between the frustration of seeing my forecast bust, and being happy that no lives or property were affected by intense severe weather.”

It’s refreshing to see meteorologists explain what happened and for the Dallas Morning News to inform its readers. That way, hopefully, citizens will still heed warnings the next time there is a potential for severe weather.

Beating the odds

Shutterstock.com

Does ESPN.com have too many homers covering the NFL? That is, reporters who are a little too sunny about the teams they cover?

I ask because Pro Football Talk managing editor Michael David Smith discovered that when ESPN’s writers were asked to predict the record of the team they cover for next season, only one — Cameron Wolfe, who covers the Miami Dolphins — predicted their team would win fewer games than oddsmakers in Las Vegas say they will. (And Vegas is objective and usually close to the target.) In fact, of the 32 NFL teams, 26 ESPN writers said the team they cover would win more games than Vegas predicts. Five said their team would win exactly as many games as Vegas predicts.

If you add up all the wins predicted by the beat writers, the teams will finish 64 games over .500 — which is, of course, statistically impossible.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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