How coverage of the Barr memo shows the media learned nothing from its 2016 failures
After sprinting out to erroneously announce that special counsel Robert Mueller's two-year investigation had delivered ”total exoneration” for Trump, news outlets are now busy walking it all back as it becomes increasingly clear that the press was willingly duped by the administration. Released on March 24, Attorney General William Barr's skeletal, four-page summary—essentially a press release—in no way should be viewed as a definitive synopsis of Mueller's 400-plus page report. With news that some players on Mueller's normally tight-lipped team are privately grumbling that Barr has misrepresented the Russia report to the public, and that the report may contain far more ”alarming” evidence of obstruction of justice than Barr first suggested, journalists once again stand exposed, guilty of naïvely accepting the word of an official working for an administration that lies about everything.
And yes, we've seen this unsettling show before, namely during the 2016 presidential campaign season. Following that debacle, most in the press refused to concede mistakes had been made, let alone offer up much serious self-reflection. It's simply not possible for news organizations to screw up as badly as they did in 2016, not deal with the shortcomings, and then expect journalism during the Trump era to improve. During the campaign, the media failures were manifest—they treated Trump like a celebrity and let him essentially get away with running a substance-free campaign, while every Hillary Clinton utterance was dissected in on obsessive search for hypocrisy and bad faith. Additionally, the press essentially eliminated policy coverage for Clinton because they spent so much time on their blind “But Her Emails” pursuit. (The Clinton coverage was also wildly sexist.)
To this day, most in the media have not summoned the proper courage to properly deal with a congenital liar like Trump. And so, three years after the campaign, we're once again watching as the Beltway press fumbles through another Trump-related failure. And not just any failure: They're bungling what might be the most important story of the Trump presidency, since in theory, the Mueller report has the power to end Trump's time in office.
In this case, the Barr failures were immediate. Rather than going with accurate headlines, such as "Trump's attorney general claims Mueller has cleared the president," newsrooms just tossed all context aside and ran with GOP-friendly proclamations: "Mueller finds no conspiracy" (Washington Post), "Mueller finds no Trump-Russia conspiracy" (New York Times)," Mueller finds no Trump-Russia conspiracy" (Politico), "Mueller doesn’t find Trump campaign conspired with Russia" (Wall Street Journal), "Mueller finds no Trump collusion, leaves obstruction open" (Associated Press).
Overnight, journalists somehow collectively decided that a four-page summary—typed up by a partisan official who read the special counsel report—was the same thing as seeing the special counsel report. It was truly astonishing. I can guarantee you that if then-Attorney General Janet Reno had announced she had read the Starr Report in 1998, issued a four-page summary, put it under lock and key, and basically told everyone to go home, there would've been Beltway newsroom revolution in the streets.
The press seemed obsessed with erasing the middleman, Barr, from the story after Mueller delivered his report to the DOJ, as well as pretending it was Mueller and his staff who had handed down sweeping conclusions about Trump's supposed innocence. Wrong. Indeed, virtually lost in the media's "exoneration" stampede was any serious examination of Barr's bizarre role in what now looks like an attempted cover-up. Trump’s hand-picked attorney general didn’t simply arrive at the DOJ out of the blue.
Last June, Barr sent an unsolicited, 20-page memo to the Department of Justice, stating Mueller's investigation was "fatally misconceived" and “grossly irresponsible." Barr explained, in great detail, why he thought Trump could not be indicted for obstruction of justice.
In November, Trump suddenly ousted Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, giving no specific reasons for the move. It had been clear for months that Trump was furiousthat Sessions had recused himself from the Russia probe, which meant Trump's then-attorney general was not in a strong position to protect him. The following month, Barr, fresh off his memo assuring Trump that he should never been charged with obstruction of justice, got tapped as the new attorney general; he promptly announced that he had decided, after looking at the Mueller evidence, not to indict Trump for obstruction of justice. This isn't some mysterious, Rubik’s Cube-type riddle: Trump wanted a concrete backstop at the DOJ to protect him, and today, that's Barr's job. The corruption is all out in the open.
Journalists quickly started announcing what the Mueller report did and did not ”confirm,” despite the fact that no journalists had read even a single sentence of the findings. The "Mueller report is out," CBS News announced. Wait, what? Journalists, who typically demand access to documents when evaluating investigations, were making sweeping conclusions based on the Barr press release.
After the New York Times announced Barr's findings somehow represented a "powerful boost" to Trump, the paper hit Democrats for ”downplaying Mr. Mueller's findings,” while matter-of-factly detailing "The Mueller Report’s Findings," as if those were verifiable things. It was complete Twilight Zone stuff, making one wonder what Times newsroom conversations sounded like: “We haven't read the report but we think it's a ‘powerful boost’ for Trump, and Democrats are being sore losers for not accepting Barr's spin.”
What was so telling though, was that the public didn’t buy what Trump and the press corps were selling. Polling quickly showed that most Americans didn’t see the Barr memo as proof that Trump had been exonerated. In fact, by a margin of 2-to-1, Voters said that even the Barr summary of the Mueller report made them ”less likely” to vote for Trump in 2020. Maybe that's because most Americans saw through the charade—why would the administration keep secret a report that supposedly cleared the president? It makes no sense. If voters could see that, why couldn't journalists? (Unsurprisingly, Trump's approval rating didn't budge, despite the supposed "exoneration.")
The Trump administration lies about everything. And yet every new pronouncement from them seems to be treated as truth. The press could and should have learned important lessons from Trump's 2016 campaign with regard to dealing with someone who doesn't bother with formalities like honesty and transparency. Instead, by refusing to reflect on their 2016 failings, the media just keeps stumbling into more.