Media have account to settle with American people over Mueller investigation coverage

An old saw in the journalism industry advises reporters to go only where the facts lead. This general guidance is found in the ethics codes of respected organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists and Radio Television Digital News Association. For nearly two years, however, too many news outlets have chosen to report without facts, ranging far and wide with chaotic and speculative reporting of the Mueller investigation.

The news industry has done its own version of the “Bird Box Challenge,” stumbling around unsuccessfully in the dark trying to find fact nuggets on which to build the Mueller story.

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Journalists faced a true challenge when the Mueller probe began. The issues being investigated were serious. The results of the investigation could plausibly change the course of history. Mueller and his investigation team, however, were quite tight-lipped and leak free, leaving reporters to track a big story while suffering a paucity of facts.

That paucity didn’t keep news organizations from super-sizing the story anyway, allowing the probe to dominate the news agenda. The Media Research Center reports the major broadcast evening newscasts ran well over two thousand minutes of collusion coverage over the last two years. Axios reporter Neal Rothschild says the Mueller probe generated over a half million web-based articles.

In place of facts, news producers and editors filled air time and column space with intense speculation and commentary. That yammering came frequently from polarized talking heads on the left and right who were not so much trying to explain the story as to push their concocted versions that served adversarial purposes.

Reporting was replaced largely by wishful thinking as television news shows allowed left-leaning voices to predict jail time for Trump family members and impeachment for the president. Trump supporting hosts on Fox News and right-leaning web sites just as adamantly crowed that there was no collusion or obstruction, having no more Mueller investigation facts than anybody else. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed reported that Trump had told his former attorney, Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenStormy Daniels reaches settlement with Michael Cohen, ex-lawyer  Trump associate gave US government Osama bin Laden's phone number, judge says The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - After GOP infighting, Trump Jr. agrees to testify again MORE, to lie in congressional testimony, sparking a deluge of copycat and unsubstantiated reporting.

The result of this hair-on-fire coverage is a distracted and confused news-consuming public that is left trying to square months of speculation, much of it anti-Trump, with a Mueller report that apparently fails to indict anybody for collusion or obstruction of justice.

For months, other news of substance has been deemphasized in order to keep the Mueller story front and center. It will take a long time, if ever, for citizens to get caught up on what all news they missed because of the news agenda contraction caused by Mueller probe mania.

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Almost two years of reporting about the Mueller investigation has failed to substantially enlighten or inform the public. What is has done, however, is provide ratings boosts for MSNBC and CNN. It has also given California Democratic Congressman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSchiff: Impeachment proceedings could be 'tool' to get information, evidence Schiff: Escalating Iran tensions 'all too predictable' 5 things to watch as Trump, Dems clash over investigations MORE a daily platform on which to become a superstar of the Trump resistance. It has also sparked presidential tweets and bold public denials from the President, presumably keeping him diverted from what should be other important duties. The drumbeat of speculation around the Mueller probe has also led to two-thirds of Democrats believing the Russians manipulated vote totals to get Trump elected.

The misguided coverage of the Mueller probe further diminishes credibility in the news media. The media, to use a football metaphor, consistently outkicked its coverage, so to speak, creating a national hysteria over two years that was scarce on facts and hefty on speculation and hand-wringing.

Voters on the left, right and, indeed, the center should hold the national news media accountable for its failure to provide a rational and measured approach to a story of such magnitude.

The details of the Mueller report have yet to be fully released, of course, but with no more indictments forthcoming, most voters probably feel like singer Peggy Lee asking, “Is that all there is?”

Sadly, the news industry will likely forge ahead with a similar journalistic style in covering the upcoming brawl about releasing the report in full.

Philosopher George Santayana once said something about people who don’t learn from history. Journalists might pause for a moment to look at whether their coverage of the Mueller investigation over the last two years has sufficiently served the information needs of a democracy.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.