Why the media should ignore the absurd attacks on Mueller coverage

Why the media should ignore the absurd attacks on Mueller coverage
Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

Attorney General William Barr's dubious claim that Donald Trump has been exonerated from allegations of Russia collusion and that he should face no obstruction of justice charges has unleashed a bizarre line of attack on journalists who covered special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation for the past two years. The claim is that, because Trump won't be charged with a crime, reporters somehow got the story “wrong” and should apologize for their work. The claim is an absurd one, and represents the latest effort to try to protect Trump from an aggressive press corps.


Pundits running interference for Trump want journalists to think they face a "reckoning" over their Mueller coverage. They don't. What they do face is yet another crusade designed to silence reporters trying to cover a criminal enterprise being run out of the White House. "They aim to highlight specific news organizations and, in some cases, individual reporters and paint them as biased and untrustworthy," the Associated Press reports.

The Trump campaign on Monday actually urged television networks to ban White House critics in the future. And the Republican National Committee has already blasted out emails with headlines such as "The Media Was Obsessed With The Democrat Lie," while Sean Hannity is taking names. The idea, of course, that Fox News, which is still lying about Benghazi to this day, represents arbiters of quality journalism is laughable. And it's another reason newsrooms should shrug off the latest tantrum from the Right.

But we're already seeing nervous news executives scurrying to reply to the latest "liberal media bias" allegation.

And that's the danger with internalizing these bogus attacks: They might lead newsrooms to back off Trump coverage in the future. If editors and producers actually buy into the idea that they got the Mueller story “wrong,” or dedicated too many resources to it, they might pull back on important, looming stories. It's also a clear attempt to gag public officials and commentators from sharing their informed opinions about Trump, on the premise that they might be proven incorrect.

In total, news outlets have very little to apologize for with regard to their Russia coverage during the past two years. Yes, the scandal produced an avalanche of coverage and commentary, as it should have! Folks, the story revolved around the credible claim that the president of the United States may have sought help from a foreign adversary in order to be elected. That's kind of a big deal. Yet, looking back, not much of what was reported turned out to be inaccurate or problematic.

"As Americans saw with their own eyes Trump’s bizarre efforts to ingratiate himself with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, that reporting mattered and provided context," wrote Washington Post public editor Margaret Sullivan. "And that shouldn’t be forgotten or swept aside now."

I'm not suggesting there should be no self-reflection. There should be, because it remains an essential part of journalism. In fact, I'm still waiting for an ounce of Beltway media self-reflection regarding the sexist fiasco that was the Hillary Clinton campaign coverage in 2016. The press has no interest in dissecting that and responding to liberal critics. Yet within hours of Barr releasing his letter, nervous news outlets are rushing to conduct public reviews of their Mueller coverage?

And note that when FBI Director James Comey announced in July 2016 that Hillary Clinton would face no criminal charges with regard to her handling of private emails while serving as secretary of state, there were no immediate rounds of media mea culpas for how pundits and journalists had breathlessly speculated for more than a year that Clinton might face criminal charges.

Meanwhile, I've been highly critical this week of how the press has treated Barr's cherry-picked summary of the Mueller report, so I'm not suggesting the press is without sin when it comes to the totality of the coverage. But the charge that the press missed the Mueller story or badly botched it over the past two years is baseless. Why would anyone apologize for Mueller coverage when not one reporter has actually read the Mueller report? And don't forget, there are still a dozen ongoing investigations stemming from Mueller's special counsel probe, many of them now based in New York.

The claims of media malpractice just don't hold up. Indeed, what exactly is the critique being leveled here? Is it that, because a special counsel didn't indict Trump, the press should have ignored the special counsel's investigation these last two years? That's a completely senseless take on how newsgathering works. Reporters don't base their real-time coverage on the future outcome of investigations. That's like saying that because O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of killing his wife, the press shouldn't have covered his murder trial.

Another claim is that the press wallowed too deeply and too long in conspiracy coverage, which is nonsensical, since a conspiracy was literally the premise of Mueller’s investigation: He was hired to determine whether Trump or his campaign conspired with Russian operatives. (According to Barr's cover letter, Mueller narrowly determined there wasn’t evidence that Trump or his campaign criminally conspired with the “Russian government.”)

The Russia scandal is far from over, especially since the Mueller report remains under lock and key at Trump's Department of Justice. Journalists shouldn't let loud screams of "Bias" stop them from pursuing this story, or any Trump scandal story.

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