Despite Intricacy of Concluded Mueller Probe, News Media Maintains Tradition of Oversimplification

Less than two weeks after Attorney General William Barr told Congress that Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not draw a definitive conclusion as to whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice, The New York Times reported that members of Mueller’s team had told associates that Barr failed to adequately portray their findings, which they said were more troubling for Trump than Barr presented them to be.

The Times’ reporting, which was published on Wednesday, describes the “simmering frustrations” of some investigators, who have expressed concerns that Barr’s March 24 letter will “have hardened” the public’s views of the investigation before the still-confidential report is delivered to Congress.

Within a few hours, The Washington Post corroborated The Times’ story by citing an anonymous source who said that evidence of obstruction gathered by investigators “was much more acute than Barr suggested.”

Another source told The Post that the team prepared summaries of different sections of the report intended to be made public. These summaries were reportedly meant to bypass an added process of summary and revision by Barr and present Americans with information direct from the findings of the two-year long probe.

“There was immediate displeasure from the team when they saw how the Attorney General had characterized their work instead,” the source said.

Considering the Special Counsel’s office and DOJ are currently working together to redact grand jury material, classified information, and other information reputationally damaging to peripheral third parties who prosecutors declined to indict, the decision of some investigators to speak out indicates how profound disagreements between the two entities are.

Another consequence was the new reporting from The Times and The Post contradicted their previous framing of statements from Barr’s summary as if they were indistinguishable from Mueller’s findings, which no one outside of the DOJ has read at the time.

Several newspapers including The Times, The Post and The Los Angeles Times ran headlines repeating, and erroneously attributing to Mueller, Barr’s claim that prosecutors did not find a criminal conspiracy between members of Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. This framing used was despite the fact that the direct quote from Mueller’s report that Barr included in his letter said investigators could not establish a conspiracy – a key legal distinction that editorial staff at the papers failed to stress.

Indeed, failing to find evidence of a conspiracy would mean the two-year long probe yielded no evidence of any kind that suggested or shed light on coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. On the other hand, failing to establish either conspiracy or obstruction suggests that prosecutors did not think the evidence gathered was sufficient to prove either crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Coverage by The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe was even less accurate, since their headlines precipitously substituted conspiracy, the criminal count Mueller was tasked with investigating, with collusion. The latter, of course, is a non-legal word that was used by the President and his allies so often that by the point it was co-opted by the media, the two words were often used interchangeably.

In fact, establishing a criminal conspiracy requires evidence that proves elements like intent and an agreement to conspire with another person to commit a crime, as well as an “overt act” in furtherance of said crime.

Nonetheless, The Journal and The Globe’s blurring of the distinction between conspiracy and collusion also glosses over the likelihood that Mueller found voluminous evidence of the latter, considering the vastness of the two-year-long probe which included more than 2800 subpoenas issued and 500 witness interviews.

Even more puzzling was The Times’ decision to quietly add the crucial clarification “Barr says” to the headline of the online version of the same article which erroneously attributed Barr’s words to Mueller on the front page of the print edition.

This oversimplification of complex legal distinctions at the heart of the investigation has been a lingering issue with coverage by the media writ large since Mueller’s appointment in May, 2017.

In January, BuzzFeed News faced considerable backlash after it published a bombshell report that cited federal law enforcement officials in alleging Trump had directed his long-time lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress during his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

Less than 24 hours later, Special Counsel spokesman Peter Carr issued an exceedingly rare statement disputing the veracity of aspects of BuzzFeed’s report—a shocking development that caused introspection within the industry over whether news outlets had a tendency to rush to judgment on evidentiary matters that were too nuanced for simplified reporting.

Just a few days before the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation was announced, Issac Bailey, editor-at-large of The Root, wrote that BuzzFeed exemplified a “journalistic tendency to smooth away rough edges in ways that can make accurate stories less credible” when they authoritatively asserted that Trump had suborned perjury.

“The truth is messy,” Bailey added. “It would serve us—and the public—better if we spent more time explaining that reality than shoehorning a mind-numbingly, complex, seemingly endless set of facts into a neat narrative that misleads more than clarifies.”

In emailed comments made to MediaFile prior to the conclusion of the Mueller probe, Bailey said the “flattening” of the media landscape into several smaller outlets had resulted into a situation where, “no one outlet can steer the conversation.”

As a result, Bailey said that even if individual journalists responsibility reported nuanced stories, “all of the specifics can get overwhelmed” since the public now gets news from a multitude of sources.

“The New York Times, for instance, is still indispensable and has done excellent work on the Mueller probe,” Bailey said. “But even some of its great work has been overshadowed and overwhelmed by the overall narrative that no one outlet can control.”

In a perverse manner, coverage has inverted from implying the complex evidence is suggestive of collusion to oversimplifying legal distinctions that carry widely different implications to erroneously attribute Attorney General Barr’s exoneration of the President to Mueller’s still-private findings.

After The New York Times went public with its reporting, veteran BBC anchor Katty Kay said that regardless of the story’s merits, Congressional Democrats planning to subpoena the report and its principal author risked looking like “sore losers” since the “public narrative has already formed.”

In response, NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen criticized Kay, calling her political calculation a “museum-quality sample” of the “‘savvy’ style” of political journalism in which journalists present themselves as “sophisticated judge[s] of appearances.”

In this type of journalism, the operative question is “not whether they ARE being sore losers but the risk that they might LOOK like it,” Rosen said. After a commentator observed that journalists like Kay were the ones who had been forming the narrative she mentioned, Rosen added, “‘The public narrative has already been formed,’ huh?”

“Now how does something like THAT happen?”


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