Mueller coverage keeps missing its mark, as BuzzFeed debacle shows

Mueller coverage keeps missing its mark, as BuzzFeed debacle shows
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The news-consuming public is the loser whenever a media organization becomes a key focus of a news situation it is supposed to be covering. Such is the case again, as BuzzFeed has become a part of the news rather than a disseminator of it.

BuzzFeed’s report that President TrumpDonald TrumpUS, South Korea reach agreement on cost-sharing for troops Graham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it' Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump MORE directed former attorney Michael Cohen to lie in congressional testimony led to a rebuke from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office. Before that admonition happened, however, the copycat news industry was in full delirium, repeating without substantiation the BuzzFeed report, countless times over countless outlets.


Trump may or may not have suborned perjury, and he may or may not be impeached. This BuzzFeed story and the swarm-reporting that followed, however, has failed to advance the story in a meaningful way. Mueller’s investigation team has been remarkably tight-lipped and leak-free, leaving reporters little with which to work other than the smattering of court documents regarding Cohen and some of the other players, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn. That’s not enough for the hungry news media, but that’s all they are likely to get until Mueller provides details on his own terms.

The media avalanche that followed the original BuzzFeed “scoop” is more damaging to the image of the news industry than the report itself. At least BuzzFeed was trying to break news, clumsy as the effort may have been. The press-pack mentality that followed, however, was boosting a flimsy report with even more flimsy reporting.

Sure, most of the associated news coverage tossed in an obligatory disclaimer or two regarding the legitimacy of the BuzzFeed story, but then stormed ahead anyway to treat the vaguely sourced charges as generally valid. Parenthetical or brief mentions that another news outlet’s allegations are unsubstantiated just doesn’t cut in professional journalism, particularly on a matter that affects the future of an administration.

The usual suspects in cable news, along with the major broadcast networks, paraded shrill experts and analysts to talk about the blockbuster report. Most of the talking heads eventually pointed to the prospects of Trump’s impeachment, and rounded out their analyses with the ever-popular references to Richard Nixon. It must never have dawned on editors and producers that they were getting manipulated by the many forces who delight on pushing an impeachment initiative.

A striking feature of the torrential pack coverage of BuzzFeed’s story was how often qualifiers such as “if,” “possibly,” “might” and “could” were used in the follow-up analysis and discussion. Such token wordsmithing is insufficient when the surrounding verbiage suggesting real guilt overwhelms the qualifiers. Next, we’ll have reporters revealing there could, might, possibly be gremlins in the White House Rose Garden.

The media has consistently overreached on the Mueller investigation, and the BuzzFeed situation is more evidence. Such overreach is unhelpful in the national dialogue and fuels the complaining of the Trump administration and its supporters that the media industry is out to get Trump. This gives the Trump camp substantial cover against any accurate news that puts the president in an unfavorable light, and allows them to backhand away true stories. Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceClyburn: Allowing filibuster to be used to deny voting rights would be 'catastrophic' Sunday shows preview: Manchin makes the rounds after pivotal role in coronavirus relief debate DeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll MORE has taken full advantage of the latest media blunder, complaining to Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” about the “obsession of many in the national media to attack this president for any reason, for any allegation.”

News coverage of the Mueller investigation should help the nation reason through chaotic times. Whether the result of the probe creates a national crisis, confirms a witch hunt, or something in between, citizens deserve news coverage that is accurate, substantial and measured. The news industry must discipline itself to go only where the story leads, and that direction will be largely determined by Mueller himself. To date, such discipline has been largely absent.

The long-term impact of BuzzFeed’s report on the Mueller investigation or the Trump presidency will be determined down the road. What the report has done for BuzzFeed in the meantime is generate tons of clicks and raise the profile of the site by getting its name plastered across every other media outlet in the nation. That might win the day in the BuzzFeed newsroom, but hardly serves the news needs of the citizenry.

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.