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[Press Rogue]

A Dark Cloud

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After two years of speculation about the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the press can finally stop guessing. Last weekend, Attorney General William Barr sent Congress a summary of Robert Mueller’s findings, and in doing so, lifted “the darkest, most ominous cloud” over the Trump presidency, as the New York Times wrote. Other outlets were just as quick to style the finding of no collusion as a political victory. To a CNN analyst, the letter proved that Trump had “gone up against the greatest prosecutor of his generation, Mueller, the ultimate straight-arrow son of the establishment—and survived.” To the Washington Post, it was “a sweet moment.”

Since the moment Trump took office, the specter of collusion has shaped coverage of his administration. Frustrated by the uncertainty of what Mueller might find, the press devoted itself to conjecture  about the political consequences Trump would face if he fired the prosecutor or pardoned figures like former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Mueller quickly established a culture of silence around his team’s work, but that only led reporters to pore over their limited public disclosures more closely, hoping to uncover some hint of a break in the case. The press analyzed each lawyer Mueller enlisted, covered every hiring and departure, and guessed constantly at potential legal strategies. Reporters quickly took to writing in the conditional, as if it were impossible to know anything for sure while Mueller’s investigation was ongoing. The Mueller investigation was a cloud over the White House, but it was also a cloud over the national press. As long as Mueller’s investigation proceeded, there was a chance Trump’s time in office could end at any moment, and with that possibility, a rationale for the media to treat his presidency as something less than fully legitimate.

Questions about the investigation mushroomed, the primary one being: When would it end? As early as December 2017, the Post was reporting that “White House lawyers have told the president he could be exonerated as early as the beginning of the year, after previously reassuring him that he would be cleared by Thanksgiving and Christmas.” Rudy Giuliani thought it would be over by September 2018. In October, Politico relayed a completely unaffiliated lawyer’s gut check that “an end is in sight.” That feeling was echoed by The Hill two months later.

MSNBC, in particular, built its coverage around this frenzy of anticipation. Guests like Jill Wine-Banks and Mimi Rocah became fixtures, leaning hard on their legal backgrounds to bolster theories about what tactics Mueller was likely to use. Rachel Maddow wondered if the Russians “had confederates inside the Trump campaign” and implied that the president’s interest in Balkan politics was “planted in his ear” by the Kremlin. It may be that the network was simply chasing viewers—as Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo pointed out earlier this week, MSNBC’s ratings have jumped 43 percent since the start of the Mueller investigation. Clearly, the public was as hungry to speculate about Mueller as the press was; MSNBC was simply the network most willing to sustain that endless appetite.

And now, at long last, the Mueller inquiry is over. Though Barr reports that there is no evidence for collusion, its absence should not be conflated with the “total exoneration” that Trump has claimed. Yesterday, the Times revealed Mueller’s report totals some three hundred pages. It  seems fair to say there is no smoking gun, but clearly, much remains to be learned.

Indeed, after the news of Barr’s summary broke, CNN proclaimed  Trump was “unquestionably enjoying his best few days since winning the 2016 election.” Times reporter Maggie Haberman concurred, noting in a tweet that they were witnessing “Trump’s best two days in two years.” Next week, Time magazine will codify this narrative on its cover, depicting Trump grinning beneath an umbrella like a portly Gene Kelly. Get ready: it’s time for “The Trump Reboot.”

The conservative media, meanwhile, has taken a scorched-earth approach to those who spent the past two years covering the inquiry into Russian collusion. The Wall Street Journal editorial board called for an investigation into the so-called Steele dossier, claiming that the document (“one of the nastiest dirty tricks in political history”) triggered the FBI’s initial probe into the Trump campaign—never mind that it was George Papadopoulos’s soliciting of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from a Russian professor that gave investigators a credible reason to suspect wrongdoing. Over at National Review, editor Rich Lowry argued that the firing of James Comey was an action taken out of a “sense of aggrieved (although often self-defeating) innocence.” Even the rarefied hangdog of Fox News, Brit Hume, got in on the action, calling allegations of Russian collusion “the worst journalistic debacle of my lifetime.” Note that Hume is in his seventies, so the timeframe he’s referring to includes not only the credulous repeating of the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but also the McCarthyist blacklisting of suspected communists and the media’s homophobic downplaying of the AIDS epidemic.  

That Mueller’s investigation has ended without revealing the most egregious possible scenario—say, that Trump had a personal line to Putin and the two men hashed out the optimal date for WikiLeaks to release John Podesta’s emails—does not detract from its findings. It does not diminish the craven obfuscation of the plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. And it does not change the fact that six of Trump’s advisers were indicted. Much of the reporting on the investigation focused fairly on these pieces of news and stayed away from guesswork. Journalists should be commended for their diligence.

Still, it’s clear some outlets overextended themselves in analyzing the Mueller probe. In one sense, this may have been an attempt to push off a real reckoning with coverage of the 2016 election, and to overcompensate for the ludicrous amount of attention Hillary Clinton’s emails received. Many editors and producers likely felt it was only fair to focus on the Russia story with the same intensity they had brought to Clinton’s emails, regardless of whether there was anything new to say.

Now that this cloud has lifted over Trump’s tenure, journalists must consider what that means for coverage going forward. We still don’t know exactly what Mueller found—we’ll have to wait and see—but in the meantime, perhaps newspapers and networks can take a break from professional speculation and get back to work.

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