I have not been following the details reported in the media of the Mueller investigation, finding it to be largely speculative and short of facts. Matt Taibbi has an exhaustive analysis of how the media got the Trump-Russia story so horribly wrong that it ended up enabling Trump to take a victory lap that will last forever. The fact that all we have seen is the summary provided by the attorney general that said that Mueller could not completely exonerate Trump will be ignored, and the fact that no further indictments were issued will be highlighted by Trump. By hyping the Russia collusion angle so heavily on the basis of so little hard evidence, Taibbi says that this is the biggest US media debacle since the Iraq WMD story, though that had far worse human costs.
A few short excerpts would not do justice to the article that needs to be read in full. He says that the basic problem was that many in the media were carried away by anti-Russian fervor and published highly speculative stories based on dubious sources without due diligence.
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.
This has been a consistent pattern throughout #Russiagate. Step one: salacious headline. Step two, days or weeks later: news emerges the story is shakier than first believed. Step three (in the best case) involves the story being walked back or retracted by the same publication.
That’s been rare. More often, when explosive #Russiagate headlines go sideways, the original outlets simply ignore the new development, leaving the “retraction” process to conservative outlets that don’t reach the original audiences.
This is a major structural flaw of the new fully-divided media landscape in which Republican media covers Democratic corruption and Democratic media covers Republican corruption. If neither “side” feels the need to disclose its own errors and inconsistencies, mistakes accumulate quickly.
With Russiagate the national press abandoned any pretense that there’s a difference between indictment and conviction. The most disturbing story involved Maria Butina. Here authorities and the press shared responsibility. Thanks to an indictment that initially said the Russian traded sex for favors, the Times and other outlets flooded the news cycle with breathless stories about a redheaded slut-temptress come to undermine democracy, a “real-life Red Sparrow,” as ABC put it.
But a judge threw out the sex charge after “five minutes” when it turned out to be based on a single joke text to a friend who had taken Butina’s car for inspection.
It’s pretty hard to undo public perception you’re a prostitute once it’s been in a headline, and, worse, the headlines are still out there. You can still find stories like “Maria Butina, Suspected Secret Agent, Used Sex in Covert Plan” online in the New York Times.
Being on any team is a bad look for the press, but the press being on team FBI/CIA is an atrocity, Trump or no Trump. Why bother having a press corps at all if you’re going to go that route?
A lot of #Russiagate coverage became straight-up conspiracy theory, what Baker politely called “connecting the dots.” This was allowed because the press committed to a collusion narrative from the start, giving everyone cover to indulge in behaviors that would never be permitted in normal times.
We won’t know how much of any of this to take seriously until the press gets out of bed with the security services and looks at this whole series of events all over again with fresh eyes, as journalists, not political actors. That means being open to asking what went wrong with this story, in addition to focusing so much energy on Trump and Russia.
Tom Tomorrow tells us what we can now look forward to until the end of the Trump presidency and possibly beyond.