The news media has taken a big hit from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s conclusion that no one in the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
For the past two years, the media has focused exhaustively on the question of whether President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE and those closest to him illegally coordinated with Russia to steal the election.
The breathless coverage amplified the sense that Trump and some of his family members would go down for crimes, yet in the end, Mueller reported that he found no evidence of a conspiracy.
Conservatives and some liberals say there should be a reckoning.
“Hell yes, there ought to be some self-examination from the media for contributing to a Russia hysteria,” said Wayne Merry, a former State Department foreign service officer who worked in Moscow under former Presidents Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonVirginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE and George H.W. Bush. “Maybe the press didn’t get it all wrong, but there is not a scintilla of evidence that goes to the fundamental allegation that Trump is president because he coordinated with Russia.”
Conservatives are basking in the media’s failures, circulating greatest hits collections of reporting mistakes and mashups of television commentators warning that the walls are closing in on the president.
The Trump campaign sent a memo to television producers on Monday asking hosts to challenge past guests who claimed to have evidence of collusion.
A few prominent figures on the left are also taking a victory lap, such as The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, who says he was blackballed from CNN and MSNBC for refusing to promote the Trump-Russia conspiracy narrative.
In an email to The Hill, veteran national security reporter Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize winner, likened the Russia coverage to the run-up to the war in Iraq, when journalists were accused of uncritically accepting claims from government officials that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
“We went through the same drill with WMD,” Hersh said.
Some are defending the media’s coverage, noting that the special counsel took down several key figures in Trump’s inner circle, even if it exonerated the president on the core allegation of collusion.
The special counsel's probe spawned myriad new investigations that represent a direct legal threat to the president. Mueller was equivocal about whether Trump’s actions constituted obstruction of justice.
“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,” said Esquire’s Ryan Lizza.
But critics point to several new trends that they say the media should consider.
The public’s interest in the Russia storyline drove millions of people to tune in to cable news, producing an environment in which the incentives were out of whack, said Ian Bremmer, a global political analyst and president of Eurasia Group.
“The press is acting responsibly to their shareholders, as business organizations maximizing viewership and cash,” Bremmer said. “They’re not acting responsibly by educating the public. They make money by entertaining or outraging the public, not by challenging the public’s beliefs.”
For the past two years, newspapers have poured massive resources into their own Russia investigations, relentlessly producing scoops and exclusive content that were often held up as evidence that crimes had been committed.
Reporters drew lines of connection about collusion from the Mayflower Hotel in Washington to Prague and the Seychelles. News outlets darkly intoned about any instance in which a Trump insider had spoken to or met with a foreign official.
There has been a pack mentality, critics say, and loosened journalistic practices that led to some embarrassing corrections and retractions at CNN, The Washington Post and ABC News, among others.
“If you’re a reporter, you’re trying to connect the dots,” said Merry. “But you can’t always be sure the dots connect. That’s what grand juries should do, not reporters.”
Still, the media’s influence over the Russia investigation grew as lawmakers offered instant reactions to the latest developments.
A recent BuzzFeed article stating that there was hard evidence that Trump had instructed Cohen to lie to Congress provoked immediate demands of impeachment from Democratic lawmakers. The reaction to the story was so swift and powerful that the special counsel was moved to deny the allegation in a rare statement.
And an explosion of leaks and commentary from current and former government officials — some of whom are paid contributors for the networks and cable news outlets — fueled the notion that the Trump campaign had orchestrated an elaborate conspiracy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Predictions from those officials, such as former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Still in the game: Will Durham's report throw a slow curveball at key political players? UFOs are an intriguing science problem; Congress must act accordingly MORE, an intelligence analyst for NBC News, carried additional weight because of their past positions within government.
“As a consumer of news, I’d like to see much more empirically based reporting and much less commentary,” said Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia. “The balance is too skewed toward the latter these days.”
Brennan, who predicted on MSNBC last week that Mueller would submit his final report to the Justice Department along with indictments for several members of Trump’s family, admitted to the mistake on Monday.
“I think I suspected there was more than there actually was,” Brennan said on MSNBC.
The question of whether an overzealous news media bought into the collusion storyline will hang over the 2020 election as Trump and his allies cast the press as dishonest and hostile to the president’s reelection efforts.
“It’s clear that the collusion truthers in the media and the Democrat Party are only going to double down on their sick and twisted conspiracy theories moving forward,” said Donald Trump Jr.Don TrumpHow Trump uses fundraising emails to remain undisputed leader of the GOP Donald Trump Jr. joins Cameo Book claims Trump family members were 'inappropriately' close with Secret Service agents MORE
CNN media reporter Brian Stelter fired back at him, calling it a “rookie mistake” to cast all of the media as corrupt.
“Don’t be fooled by the partisans who cherry pick the worst mistakes of individual journalists or the craziest ideas from commentators and claim that’s the entire media,” Stelter said. “It’s not.”