Press Rogue — March 29, 2019, 2:34 pm

A Dark Cloud

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Kyle Paoletta:

Press Rogue May 23, 2019, 2:59 pm

One Horse Town

Press Rogue May 16, 2019, 4:00 pm

Playing With Fire

Press Rogue May 9, 2019, 4:00 pm

Boys on the Bus

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
Burning Down the House·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t just the greatest of all American architects. He has so eclipsed the competition that he can sometimes seem the only one. Who are his potential rivals? Henry Hobson Richardson, that Gilded Age starchitect in monumental stone? Louis Sullivan, lyric poet of the office building and Wright’s own Chicago mentor, best known for his dictum that form follows function? “Yes,” Wright corrected him with typical one-upmanship, “but more important now, form and function are one.” For architects with the misfortune to follow him, Wright is seen as having created the standards by which they are judged. If we know the name Frank Gehry, it’s probably because he designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. And Gehry’s deconstructed ship of titanium and glass would be unimaginable if Wright hadn’t built his own astonishing Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue some forty years earlier.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Sebastian Gorka, the former deputy assistant to the president who now hosts a radio show called America First, was banned from YouTube for repeatedly uploading audio from the rock band Imagine Dragons without copyright permission.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today