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Media stares down 'reckoning' after Mueller report underwhelms

POLITICO logo POLITICO 3/25/2019 By Michael Calderone
a person standing in a room: The announcement of the principal conclusions of Robert Mueller's report ramped up scrutiny of the news media’s handling of the special counsel's two-year investigation. © Drew Angerer/Getty Images The announcement of the principal conclusions of Robert Mueller's report ramped up scrutiny of the news media’s handling of the special counsel's two-year investigation.

Fox News host Sean Hannity accused “CNN, MSNBC, and the mainstream media” of having “lied” for two years in his first tweet on Sunday after a four-page summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusions was made public.

“Now they will be held accountable,” he warned.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump. Jr. accused “CNN, MSNBC, BuzzFeed and the rest of the mainstream media” of “non-stop conspiracy theories” in a statement, while urging “honest journalists within the media” to “have the courage to hold these now fully debunked thruthers accountable.”

That Mueller concluded no one from Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign “conspired or coordinated” with Russia in attempting to influence the election has ramped up scrutiny of the news media’s handling of the two-year investigation. “The 3 biggest losers from the Mueller report in order — the media, the media, the media,” tweeted National Review editor Rich Lowry.

It’s not only prominent conservatives, the president’s TV boosters and family members calling out the media, but also some journalists on the left who have long been skeptical of the Trump-Russia story. “If there's no media reckoning for what they did, don't ever complain again when people attack the media as ‘Fake News’ or identify them as one of the country's most toxic and destructive forces,” wrote The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald.

Longtime Rolling Stone writer and author Matt Taibbi published an excerpt from his new book on Saturday which argued that “Russiagate is this generation's WMD,” a reference to news coverage during the run-up the Iraq war, widely seen as the greatest journalistic failure in modern memory. “The sheer scale of the errors and exaggerations this time around dwarfs the last mess,” Taibbi wrote.

It may be premature to castigate the news media when a lot questions remain unanswered. Attorney general William Barr only provided a four-page summary of Mueller’s report, which notably on the issue of obstruction, “does not conclude that the president committed a crime,” but “also does not exonerate him." It remains unclear why, exactly, Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded over the weekend that there was not sufficient evidence to support obstruction — especially as the president was never interviewed.

Also, blaming “the media” writ large is problematic in potentially lumping unsupported speculation — whether on cable news or on social media — with dogged reporting on an investigation which led to a half-dozen Trump associates, including a former campaign chairman and national security adviser, either being charged or pleading guilty to crimes. Not to mention, there are still a dozen investigations, largely based in New York, stemming from the special counsel’s investigation.

And while fair-minded criticism can be beneficial to the news media, there are likely to also be bad faith attempts to delegitimize journalism (as the president has attempted to do for years in dismissing "fake news" and characterizing the media as "the enemy"). A Trump adviser told CNN’s Jim Acosta to expect the president and his team to "slam and shame the media" in the coming days. Trump Jr. will appear Monday night on Fox News's "Tucker Carlson Tonight."

Some journalists have already pushed back on the weekend criticism. “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,” tweeted Esquire’s Ryan Lizza.

The news media is just one of several institutions, along with the president, the special counsel and both parties, facing a “reckoning,” the New York Times’s Peter Baker wrote in a Saturday front-page analysis as Washington — and the world — remained in limbo about Mueller’s principal conclusions. “Have journalists connected too many dots that do not really add up?” Baker asked.

The most anticipated finding in Mueller’s report, on conspiring with Russia, came Sunday afternoon. As Barr’s letter began circulating publicly, CNN anchors, reporters and analysts were glued to their phones on set getting the news. On MSNBC and Fox News, reporter Pete Williams and producer Jake Gibson, respectively, read the letter on air.

“This is stunning,” said anchor Bret Baier. “After 675 days. After a country has been through obsession, really, of this case, and nonstop coverage, this is the conclusion: That no American conspired or worked with Russia to alter the 2016 election.”

This moment, he said, “is a complete win for President Trump.”

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