With Mueller report, the media begins its long look inward

March 25, 2019

Reckoning. That’s a word that keeps coming up today.

Now that it appears the Mueller Report, at least according to Attorney General William Barr’s summary, exonerates President Donald Trump of the most serious charge of colluding with the Russians to rig the 2016 election, we will spend the next several days, if not longer, dissecting the media’s role in a narrative in which Trump might have been a crook.

Now that an investigation apparently says he is not, we turn our attention to what surely will be on onslaught of criticism directed at the media. It has already started.Rich Lowry of the National Review tweeted, “The 3 biggest losers from the Mueller report in order — the media, the media, the media.” He also tweeted that it was was “one of the biggest media fails of our lifetimes” and called the past two years “a disgrace.”

CNN’s Jim Acosta said one Trump advisor told him, “This is like Geraldo Rivera and Al Capone’s vault all over again.” That same advisor told Acosta to expect Trump to ramp up his media attacks.

Thus the word of the day: reckoning.

The first sentence in a column by the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi read, “And now comes the reckoning for the mainstream news media and the pundits.”

Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept tweeted Sunday night:

If there’s no media reckoning for what they did, don’t ever complain again when people attack the media as ‘Fake News’ or identify them as one of the country’s most toxic and destructive forces. They’ve earned those attacks.”

The New York Times’ Peter Baker wrote that the media will now face a “reckoning.”

Writing for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi was even more blunt. He wrote, “Nothing Trump is accused of from now on by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population.”

Fair or unfair? Does the media deserve the bashing it will get over the coming days and weeks? Well, it might depend on how you define “media.”

Some pundits, such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, certainly suggested that the Mueller report could eventually lead to a Trump impeachment. Whether it was overwhelming coverage, opinions based on actual reporting or nothing more than wishful thinking, Maddow’s show did often lead viewers to believe Trump’s days were numbered. Even the normally measured Brian Stelter of CNN asked in his newsletter: “Do Maddow’s viewers feel misled right about now?”

The same could be said about many columnists, op-ed writers and cable TV opinionists who led their audiences down a road that now appears to have hit a dead end.

But what about the rest of what most people recognize as mainstream media whose coverage was based more on facts than opinions?

In an interview with the Washington Post, New York Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet said, “I’m comfortable with our coverage. 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.”

The New York Times and Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting last year for their Trump-Russia coverage. Here’s the official Pulitzer description for why the Times and Post won journalism’s top award:

“For deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and this eventual administration.”

But Trump and his supporters might say today, “What connections?”

Baquet told the Post, “On Russia interference, we and others wrote extensively about Russia’s attempt to influence the election, both through hacking and direct approaches by Russians to people around candidate Trump. Those stories were true. And nothing has happened to call into question the reporting about Donald Trump’s financial history, or the use of his charity, or any of the other fine investigative reporting over the past three years.”

Fox News’ Brit Hume, in one of several tweets ripping into the media, said journalists were trying to relive glory days and saw Trump as the chance do that. He tweeted:

“Watergate was regarded by journalists as the most glorious moment in the modern history of their trade and they’ve been looking for a way to relive it ever since. The result was the collusion debacle.”

There is no question that the media dedicated time and resources to the story. According to the Tyndall Report, ABC, CBS and NBC aired 332 minutes on their evening news broadcasts about “Russiagate’’ last year. The only story with more coverage was the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. Meanwhile, according to the Republican National Committee, The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN.com and MSNBC.com wrote a combined 8,507 articles about the Mueller investigation.

Overkill?

Trump supporters will argue that. They can say those numbers were too much, given what we know at this moment. Then again, news organizations can counter with the fact that a special prosecutor investigated the president for two years and indicted several people close to Trump. How can the media not cover such a story?

Ultimately, the amount of coverage doesn’t matter as much as the accuracy of that coverage. That will continue to be debated for some time.

Is that a reckoning?

In a column published Monday, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan gave her own reckoning.

“I reckon that American citizens would have been far worse off if skilled reporters hadn’t dug into the connections between Trump’s associates — up to and including his son Don Jr. — and Russians,” Sullivan wrote. “That reporting has not been invalidated.”

She also wrote, “I reckon that reporting by The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, CNN, Bloomberg News, the Daily Beast, Mother Jones, ProPublica and others drove forward a national conversation that needed to happen.”

And she concluded by writing that the media, “should (not) allow themselves to be bullied about the important work they’ve done, and must continue to do.”

Surely, the media will continue to do its job on this story. But there’s also no question that it will continue to be judged for that work, likely with more scrutiny than ever before. And each news outlet needs to re-examine how it covered this story.

What can you call all this? A reckoning. And it has only just begun.

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