WaPo, NYT: Say, maybe the media has a post-Mueller credibility problem

Ya think? It’s tough to tell which hyperventilating and obsessive entity got hardest hit by Robert Mueller’s nothingburger on Russia-collusion, Democrats or the media. At least most Americans don’t assume Democrats exist to tell people the truth.


Paul Farhi warns that a “reckoning” might be coming, and the media might deserve it:

And now comes the reckoning for the mainstream news media and the pundits.

After more than two years of intense reporting and endless talking-head speculation about possible collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian agents in 2016, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III put a huge spike in all of it on Sunday. Attorney General William P. Barr relayed Mueller’s key findings in a four-page summary of the 22-month investigation: The evidence was insufficient to conclude that Trump or his associates conspired with Russians to interfere in the campaign.

Barr’s announcement was a thunderclap to mainstream news outlets and the cadre of mostly liberal-leaning commentators who have spent months emphasizing the possible-collusion narrative in opinion columns and cable TV panel discussions.

Part of that reckoning, Farhi notes, will be to unwind the impact that media coverage had on the 2018 election. He concedes that it won’t be negligible, and that there may well be truth to accusations that the media misled its consumers:

The story undoubtedly was an important factor in shaping voters’ perceptions before the 2018 midterm election, in which Democrats won control of the House.

But the conclusion of the inquiry has put a question once hazily debated into sharp focus: Did the mainstream news media mislead?


The New York Times’ Peter Baker asked similar questions late on Friday, albeit buried in a lot of narrative-rescuing prose:

It will be a reckoning for President Trump, to be sure, but also for Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, for Congress, for Democrats, for Republicans, for the news media and, yes, for the system as a whole. The delivery of Mr. Mueller’s report to the Justice Department on Friday marked a turning point that will shape the remainder of Mr. Trump’s presidency and test the viability of American governance. …

So at last some questions should be answered or at least addressed: Is there more to the story of Russia’s involvement in the election than is already publicly known? Did the Trump campaign cross lines that others have not before? Has the president used his power to improperly impede investigators? Or have Democrats assumed too much in their zeal to bring Mr. Trump down? Have journalists connected too many dots that do not really add up? Can there be conclusions that are widely accepted in such a polarized era?

We could answer that question all day long, but let’s turn to a voice on the Left instead. Matt Taibbi writes for the Rolling Stone, a publication with some experience in immolating credibility. On Saturday, after news that Mueller didn’t have any other indictments to release as he closed out his investigation, Taibbi already read the writing on the wall for the American news media:


Nobody wants to hear this, but news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is headed home without issuing new charges is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media. …

Nothing Trump is accused of from now on by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population, a group that (perhaps thanks to this story) is now larger than his original base. As Baker notes, a full 50.3% of respondents in a poll conducted this month said they agree with Trump the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt.”

Stories have been coming out for some time now hinting Mueller’s final report might leave audiences “disappointed,” as if a President not being a foreign spy could somehow be bad news.

Openly using such language has, all along, been an indictment. Imagine how tone-deaf you’d have to be to not realize it makes you look bad, when news does not match audience expectations you raised. To be unaware of this is mind-boggling, the journalistic equivalent of walking outside without pants.

That is a fine analogy for what the media has done to itself over the last two-plus years since the 2016 election. They have depantsed themselves, yanked down their own britches to reveal their agenda-driven, narrative-producing practices. Taibbi’s remarks come ahead of an excerpt from his upcoming book Hate Inc in which he had already concluded that the Russiagate scandal was almost entirely the media’s. He compares it to the reporting on WMD in Iraq but calls that a “pimple” in comparison:


As a purely journalistic failure, however, WMD was a pimple compared to Russiagate. The sheer scale of the errors and exaggerations this time around dwarfs the last mess. Worse, it’s led to most journalists accepting a radical change in mission. We’ve become sides-choosers, obliterating the concept of the press as an independent institution whose primary role is sorting fact and fiction.

We had the sense to eventually look inward a little in the WMD affair, which is the only reason we escaped that episode with any audience left. Is the press even capable of that kind of self-awareness now? WMD damaged our reputation. If we don’t turn things around, this story will destroy it.

Are they capable of learning the lesson? Here’s Brian Stelter yesterday morning via RCP insisting that the media had “only take[n] the side of truth and decency” in covering Russiagate. In making that argument, he scolds Fox’s Jesse Watters for getting it right in the end, insisting that Watters needs to “take his blinders off”:

STELTER: Watters should take his blinders off. Obviously, some opinion columnists and point-of-view news outlets have invested in an anti-Trump narrative. Others, like Watters, have promoted a pro-Trump narrative. That is our wild media world. But the president’s kids and friends on Fox should be able to tell the difference between agenda-driven columnists and journalists trying to report. There is a big difference. There is difference between news and opinion.


Matt Taibbi clearly disagrees. And so will most of the media’s audience after having their blinders stripped off by Robert Mueller.

Addendum: Glenn Reynolds has more thoughts on the media’s credibility meltdown.

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John Stossel 12:40 AM | April 12, 2024