Reprinted with permission from Press Run
A "powerful boost."
That's how the New York Times in March 2019 famously described Attorney General William Barr's supposed exoneration of Trump following Barr's reading of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Refusing to release the sprawling report, Barr instead put out a thin, four-page press release where he brazenly lied about the Mueller 'reports contents, and claimed Trump was in the clear.
It was an audacious move by Barr, and it worked because the Beltway press eagerly played along, reporting that Trump's Russia worries were not only over, but that Mueller's unseen conclusions had given Trump's re-election a "powerful boost."
This week, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the United States District Court in Washington confirmed Barr lied about the Mueller report:
From the Washington Post:
[Berman] blasted Barr's four-page letter to Congress in March 2019 that said the special counsel did not draw a conclusion as to whether Trump obstructed the investigation and that Barr's own opinion was that the evidence was insufficient to bring such a charge.
In reality, Mueller's report laid out evidence of obstruction but said the special counsel could not fairly make a charging decision, given department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Even in real time, the news coverage of the Mueller report and Barr's crooked summary of it stood out as one of the low points of the Trump presidency in terms of a systemic press failure. It was stupefying to watch grown men and women at elite news outlets treat Barr as a serious, honest person; to treat the story as truthful simply because it involved the U.S. Attorney General.
Three years into Trump's ransacking of democracy, and after three years of watching Republicans completely disregard the truth, journalists foolishly played along with the charade, running in front of cameras to announce Trump had been "exonerated," without having a read a single sentence of the Mueller report. Overnight, journalists collectively decided that a four-page summary—typed up by a partisan GOP official who had promised Trump he'd never been indicted —was the same thing as seeing the special counsel's findings. It was truly astonishing.
Now that a federal judge has confirmed that the press got played, badly, what's the media response going to be? Will there by any introspection, will editors and producers reflect on how and why they got taken for a ride on one of the most important news stories of 2019? Will there be any transparency with readers and an apology, along with an explanation for what went so terribly wrong in March, 2019?
The likely answer is no to all those questions, because when it comes to being honest and open about grave blunders the press made while covering Trump, there's no appetite for it, except when the criticism comes from conservatives screaming "liberal media bias." There was never any soul searching from the Beltway media for its colossal failure from the 2016 campaign, when it treated Hillary Clinton's emails as if they were Watergate + Iran Contra. Or the way the press conveniently obliterated policy coverage while Trump ran a policy-free campaign.
At the head of the apology line ought to be the Times, which sent an immediate message to the Beltway with its "powerful boost" proclamation, and announcing the Russia "cloud" had been "lifted" from the White House. Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote an entire piece that referred to the findings of the Mueller report, even though nobody at the newspaper had seen it. "Robert Mueller seems to have concluded after a definitive investigation, Mr. Trump's win was not the illegitimate product of a treasonous conspiracy," he wrote [Emphasis added].
He also mocked "the aggrieved and embarrassed #resistance-tweeting punditocracy" for "downplaying Mr. Mueller's findings," even though Manjoo had no idea what Mueller's "findings" were. Additionally, the paper matter-of-factly detailed, "The Mueller Report's Findings," as if those were verifiable things at the time. Reminder: No reporter had read the report at that time.
Of course, it wasn't just the Times that fell on its face treating Barr's obfuscation as fact. CNN's Chris Cillizza labeled it, "A credible and well investigated report that [Trump] nor his campaign colluded with the Russians," while NBC's Ken Dilanian announced it was a "total exoneration" of Trump.
Journalists who typically demand access to documents when evaluating investigations made sweeping conclusions based on the Barr press release. The "Mueller report is out," CBS News announced, even though nobody at CBS News had read it. Stonewalling Republicans refused to release the Russia investigation findings, but the Washington Post at the time insisted it was Democrats who lookrf bad because they "boxed themselves in" on the Russia story.
Rather than going with accurate headlines, such as "Trump's Attorney General Claims Mueller Has Cleared the President," newsrooms tossed context aside and embraced 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).
None of those headlines were accurate, and they did extraordinary damage because they allowed the White House to proclaim victory. "This was an illegal takedown that failed," Trump bragged at the time. "It's complete exoneration. No collusion."
Beltway journalists failed in so many ways during the Trump years. It's time for them to acknowledge that.