The major media has a message for its viewers and readers: We’re not apologizing.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller — who just concluded an expansive, $25 million, two-year investigation into whether the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign — released his report Friday, the conclusion of which is that despite multiple, repeated offers from the Russian government, the Trump campaign spurred all offers of assistance.
Mueller exonerating Trump on collusion upends two years of media coverage from the likes of CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, the New York Times, amongst other outlets — all of which led Americans to believe the evidence of Trump and Russia working together to sink the Clinton campaign was overwhelming.
Days before Mueller released his finding, ABC’s Terry Moran reasonably noted that if Mueller doesn’t find the Trump camp colluded, Democrats and the media would experience a “reckoning.”
“The central and most serious question in this investigation, the reason Robert Mueller started it is, did the current president of the United States assist the Kremlin in an attack on our democracy? And if Mueller, after two years, comes back and says, ‘I don’t have the evidence to support that charge,’ that’s a reckoning,” Moran told This Week. “That’s a reckoning for progressives and Democrats who hoped that Mueller would essentially erase the 2016 election, it’s a reckoning for the media, it’s a reckoning around the country if, in fact, after all this time, there was no collusion.”
Mueller has since done exactly this, but the anticipated reckoning hasn’t arrived.
Many conservative commentators — as well as a few progressive writers, such as Matt Taibbi, who said the media’s mishandling of the so-called Russiagate story a “death blow” for the institution” — have said these outlets might want to apologize to try salvaging their credibility.
To date, no prominent journalist behind the Russiagate story has done so. Those in the media who’ve addressed this issue are boastfully defending their work, even saying they deserve plaudits.
Instead, these outlets are digging deeper, variously suggesting the fuller Mueller report could offer credence to their reporting, that their reporting was never intended to make a final determination on whether Trump colluded, and their critics are being hypocritical because Hillary Clinton was never charged for her mishandling of classified material (yes, this is really something being proffered as an excuse).
CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, was unrepentant on his Sunday show, Reliable Sources, saying the major media was merely asking questions, not drawing conclusions.
“Partisans on the right are already claiming the end of the Mueller probe vindicates all their prior positions. And they are saying the media, the evil media, was wrong all along,” Stelter said during his monologue [Video]. But “Mueller's assignment was to get to the truth about Russian interference. Now, did many commentators and Democratic politicians allege collusion? Yes. Did many journalists ask about it? Yes. But there is a giant difference between asking and telling. The job of the nation's news media is to ask, to question all sides, to scrutinize all sides, to report on opposing points of view and to only take the side of truth and decency.“
Stelter said if anyone is to blame for the media going down this rabbit hole, it’s Trump himself.
“So, don't be fooled by the partisans who cherry-picked the worst mistakes of individual journalists or the craziest ideas from commentators and claim that's the entire media. It's not,” he said. “We are waiting for the facts, because here is what I know. I mean, you're going to hear it from the right for the next days and weeks to come, that the press is basically made all this up to take down President Trump. But the press is just following a trail that Trump created.”
During the ensuing segment, The Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein likewise defended the media’s coverage of Russiagate. Echoing other apologists for the mainstream media, Bernstein said the circumstantial evidence was enough to merit the wall-to-wall coverage.
“The volume of coverage is justified, because — you know, the big question is, what is news? This investigation and the conduct and behavior of this president is the biggest story we have had in many years, because his behavior and conduct is anomalous,” Bernstein told Stelter [Video]. “It's different than any other president in our history. He says and does things, including the lying that no other president has done, no other president has been — it has ever been suggested, colluded to use that terrible word, with an enemy. But — we are going to find out what the underlying facts are, I hope.”
Bernstein said the reporting from The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and cable news has been “fabulous.”
Stelter’s CNN colleague, Matthew Rosenberg, said that critics like Matt Taibbi were “cherrypicking” media failures from a longer record of quality reporting [Video]. Another CNN media reporter, Oliver Darcy, claimed these critics were being hypocritical.
“Right-wing pundits and members of Trump's inner circle are pushing journalists to apologize for the media's coverage of the Mueller probe,” Darcy wrote in Stelter’s media newsletter. “The reasoning seems to be that by covering the investigation, which ultimately did not indict anyone for conspiring with Russia, journalists hyped a baseless probe. Some critics are going further and saying the press ‘lied’ and ‘colluded’ to take down Trump.”
“But I don't seem to recall these same pundits demanding journalists apologize for aggressively covering the Hillary Clinton email probe after James Comey decided not to bring charges,” he continued. “While the two aren't perfectly identical scenarios, they were similar situations, and I don't remember a rush to declare that Fox's credibility — or any other news organization's — was tarnished for coverage of it.”
Darcy is getting things backwards, though. James Comey “clearing” Clinton was not an indictment of the server scandal; indeed, Comey confirmed the most damaging reporting about Clinton’s mishandling of classified material (e.g., that she destroyed evidence, that she wasn’t truthful, that she was likely hacked). By contrast, Russiagate reporters are being asked to apologize because their self-described “bombshell” reporting was chronically riddled with errors, because these reporters tossed aside the usual ethics governing journalism to run speculation that was masked as honest reporting, and because these reporters frequently let themselves be used to regurgitate leaks from Trump’s political enemies in furtherance of a narrative lacking any kind of actual foundation.
More unusual about this episode is the way the media played a central role assisting former Obama Administration officials getting the entire Trump-Russia narrative off the ground. It was Mother Jones that first reported on the gossip that came to be known as the Trump Dossier, a document financed by the Clinton campaign and manufactured with assistance from Kremlin officials. (Normally media outlets refrain from reporting on allegations they can’t independently confirm.) It was Yahoo! News that reported the FBI was looking into the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia (after being tipped from the Trump Dossier author, Christopher Steele, who had been discussing his work with the FBI). The FBI then this Yahoo! News report to justify FISA surveillance Trump campaign officials. Leaks from these surveilled calls ended up in The Washington Post, setting the stage for Michael Flynn’s sacking. James Comey took it upon himself to brief Trump on the dossier, despite knowing it was uncorroborated; after doing so, the FBI leaked to CNN that it was investigating the campaign’s Russia dealings. BuzzFeed accelerated the process when it published the entire dossier. Again, at every step of the way, the media allowed itself to be used to help seed a narrative that’s now been proven to be untrue.
The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza said that, if anything, the media’s coverage of the Trump collusion narrative was insufficiently aggressive: “Contra a lot of commentary: given the issues, stakes, and seriousness with which special counsel treated all of this, the media's coverage of Russia-Trump connection and possible obstruction over the last two years was somewhere between about right and not quite aggressive enough."
The executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, said he was “comfortable” with his paper’s coverage.
“I'm comfortable with our coverage,” Baquet told the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi. “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."
Echoing Baquet, CNN chief Jeff Zucker told The New York Times he was “comfortable” with his network’s handling of the Russiagate story.
“We are not investigators. We are journalists, and our role is to report the facts as we know them, which is exactly what we did,” Zucker said. “A sitting president’s own Justice Department investigated his campaign for collusion with a hostile nation. That’s not enormous because the media says so. That’s enormous because it’s unprecedented.”
The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, said these Russiagate reporters “should be proud” of their work.
“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,” she wrote. “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.”
Sullivan said the overall record on Russiagate was exceptional: “With some regrettable and damaging exceptions — individual stories that seemingly went too far — reality-based news outlets have done quite well on this story. And it’s far from over. So this is no time to retreat.”
On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough bristled at the suggestion the media had anything to apologize for:
These critics, Scarborough said, are “corrupt” and “should be ashamed.”
“If you write for these [conservative] papers, and there’s some people I respect that write for these papers that have actually written columns condemning the media’s behavior, be ashamed of yourself,” he intoned. “Be ashamed of yourself. Were there bad actors? Yeah. And guess what? We know who they are. We won’t have them back on our show.” Scarborough later said that the media did “a damn good job” during this entire affair.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that his network “tortured” the president for two years with this story and owed him an apology. “Not a chance,” Cuomo quickly replied.
That the Trump campaign “colluded” with Russia during the 2016 campaign is undoubtedly the biggest media story of the last two years. We now know it’s completely false. Yet the media’s biggest proponents of the story are standing by their reporting.
If the major media wants to restore its credibility with the American people, then Terry Moran is right. There must be a “reckoning” for the last two years of breathless, round-the-clock Russiagate coverage.