For two years, anti-Trump pundits breathlessly speculated about what Mueller Time, when it finally arrived, would bring—an airtight case for impeachment, perhaps? Those hopes were dashed last week when Attorney General William Barr informed Congress that the special counsel “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities” and “determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment” as to whether or not the president obstructed justice. Mueller Time thus became Mueller Madness, the New York Post’s NCAA-style bracket of the worst takes on the special counsel’s investigation, featuring #Resistance luminaries like Rachel Maddow and Alec Baldwin.
Russia skeptics are feeling smug, declaring that media coverage of Mueller’s probe was not just a debacle but perhaps even a generational failure. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi compared it unfavorably to the media’s gullibility about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, writing, “As a purely journalistic failure . . . WMD was a pimple compared to Russiagate.” National Review’s Rich Lowry called the coverage “abysmal and self-discrediting—obsessive and hysterical, often suggesting that the smoking gun was right around the corner, sometimes supporting its hoped-for result with erroneous, too-good-to-check reporting.”
Taibbi, Lowry, and Tracey have seen as much of the Mueller report as the rest of us, which is to say almost none of it (other than a few quotes cited by Barr). It’s premature to spike the football. Worse, the skeptics today are guilty of the very media behavior they’ve been criticizing for more than two years: the rush to celebrate the latest nugget of Russia news, to declare its significance with hyperbolic certainty. Convinced of their own righteousness, the skeptics are conflating embarrassing cable news talking heads, a handful of discredited stories, and the speculative fantasy that Trump was a Russian asset with the entire field of journalism—while leaving out a lot of relevant information that proves that the Russia story is anything but a hoax.
News organizations, driven either by a need for ratings, Cold War fear-mongering, or Trump Derangement Syndrome, latched onto the idea that, in Federalist co-founder Sean Davis’s words, “the president of the United States was a Russian asset.” This theory, as Davis notes in The Wall Street Journal, originated from the now-infamous pee tape dossier, which was “produced by a retired foreign spy whose work was funded by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” Once that salacious document was out in the world, “no unverified rumor was too salacious and no anonymous tip was too outlandish to print.” The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, appearing on Democracy Now, was even more direct, calling the Mueller investigation “a scam and a fraud from the beginning” that spurred “the saddest media spectacle I’ve ever seen.”
Taibbi accused the media of creating a grotesque cult of personality around the special counsel and trusting too easily in a government authority figure. “Mueller knows became the cornerstone belief of nearly all reporters who covered the Russia investigation,” he wrote in Rolling Stone on Monday. “Journalists reveled in the idea of being kept out of the loop, thrilled to defer to the impenetrable steward of national secrets, the interview-proof Man of State. He was no blabbermouth Donald Trump, this Mueller! He won’t tell us a thing!”
Some of these critiques should be well taken. The Mueller investigation was hardly a scam, but it did bring out the worst in some corners of the media—an italicized distinction that the Russia skeptics refuse to make. To them, the entire coverage of the Russia story was a frothy mix of reckless speculation on a series of screw-ups, like ABC News reporter Brian Ross’s swiftly retracted claim that in 2016 Trump instructed campaign adviser Michael Flynn to contact the Russians. (Ross was swiftly suspended for four weeks for the error. He and ABC quietly parted ways seven months later.)
These skeptics leave out quite a bit, like the fact that Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about their contacts with Russian officials, that Mueller produced 37 indictments that have led to multiple convictions, and that the president himself told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had fired FBI Director James Comey over “this Russia thing.” As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote earlier this week, “the media pursued Trump and Russia because there was a great deal to pursue”—and because the president talked and tweeted about it constantly.
It’s worth debating the media’s priorities. Coverage of Russia surely crowded out other stories about the Trump administration, like its rampant corruption, its incoherent strategy in several Middle East conflicts, and its response to Hurricane Maria. But the story was hardly baseless, or on par with media failures in the lead-up to the Iraq war, which led to tens of thousands of deaths. The problem was that too many people, Russia skeptics and Mueller enthusiasts alike, couldn’t bother to differentiate between speculative fantasies about mysterious servers and, say, the more than 100 contacts between Trump and his associates and the Russians. Either all of it was true, or none of it was. Either the Mueller investigation would prove the president was a longtime Russian asset, or it would prove itself to be a gnarled sham.
The lack of nuance in our political discourse is hardly new, nor is the media’s urge to declare winners and losers immediately after any bit of news breaks. But the Mueller report has amplified these weaknesses. The failures of a pundit like Maddow, who devoted a truly insane amount of her show to Trump’s connections to Russia, and a few cherry-picked stories are being used as a cudgel to beat the entire media.
“No unverified rumor was too salacious and no anonymous tip was too outlandish to print. From CNN to the Times and the Post, from esteemed and experienced reporters to opinion writers and bloggers, everyone wanted a share of the Trump-treason beat,” Davis wrote, declaring that “America’s blue-chip journalists botched the entire story, from its birth during the presidential campaign to its final breath Sunday—and they never stopped congratulating themselves for it.”
The cycle of self-congratulation continues today with the Russia skeptics. It will likely continue for the next several weeks, as Congress dithers over whether to release the full Mueller report. If and when the report drops, it may contain new information that’s damning for Trump and his supporters in the media—definitive evidence of misjudgment and wrongdoing that justifies the extensive media coverage. And then today’s supposed losers will proudly take their victory laps.