The Media Make the Message

On March 24, 2019, Attorney General William Barr submitted a letter to Congress summarizing the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.  Barr’s letter stated that Mueller’s investigation did not find that the Trump Campaign conspired with Russia in its efforts to influence the election.  Regarding obstruction of justice, Barr stated that Mueller ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgement.  Instead, the Mueller report laid out evidence on both sides of the question of whether there was obstruction.  According to Barr, Mueller stated that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him”.

National and local headlines on March 25 were variations of the same theme: Mueller did not find that Trump conspired with Russia.  The Baltimore Sun’s headline that day was, “Mueller Finds no Conspiracy”.  Media sources characterized these findings as Mueller’s conclusions.  But in fact, they were Barr’s conclusions.

In a March 28, 2019 Daily KOS diary, “The media’s shameful attempt to help Trump bury the Mueller report”, Eric Boehlert notes: “Trump’s Attorney General Claims Mueller Report Clears the President is what an accurate headline would’ve looked like this week”.  According to Boehlert:

“Battered by bogus allegations that Russiagate coverage was botched simply because Trump won’t be indicted, many in the press seem to be scrambling to do their best to help the White House bury Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation. It’s arguably the most important government report compiled in the last 30 or 40 years. Yet it’s under lock and key, and much of the Washington press doesn’t seem to care.

It was bad enough when the media immediately opted to play along with Attorney General William Barr’s dubious, three-and-a-half page summary that he released last Sunday, pretending that the cherry-picked document was in any way a credible stand-in for the contents of sprawling, two-year investigation. But by having spent the entire week since then doing its best to prop up the Barr summary while raising virtually no collective demands about seeing the Mueller report itself, the press has played an absolutely central role in the unfolding cover-up.”

Boehlert goes on to say:

“The Mueller report has been anxiously anticipated for two years, with the investigation generating tremendous amount of news coverage. Yet here we are and reporters at the most prestigious news outlets in the nation have no access to the report and no idea what Mueller actually concluded, let alone what all the underlying evidence shows. It’s embarrassing—and unprecedented—for Beltway scandal coverage.”

Prior to his nomination for Attorney General, Barr criticized the Mueller investigation, writing that the investigation into possible obstruction of justice was “fatally misconceived”.  So it is incredible that the mainstream media did not regard Barr’s summary with at least some skepticism.

Meanwhile, President Trump and Republicans in Congress have grabbed this opportunity to shape the message. Trump has publicly claimed “complete and total exoneration”.  And, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have called for Committee Chairman Adam Schiff to resign because of Schiff’s public statement that there was “ample evidence of collusion”.  (Incidentally, collusion is not the same thing as the criminal conspiracy that Mueller was tasked to investigate.  Collusion is defined as “acting together secretly to achieve fraudulent or secret purposes”.  The meeting with Russian intermediaries that included Donald Trump Jr, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner, for the purpose of getting “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, would seem to fit this definition.)

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler has set an April 2 deadline for Barr to turn over the full Mueller report (which is purportedly almost 400 pages long). Barr has offered to turn over a redacted version no later than mid-April.  House Democrats will have to wrestle with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in order to see the full report.  But the media should also be asking for this report to be released. This is about accountability and public trust in the government.  Why isn’t the mainstream media pushing for Congress’ right to see a full report that is of paramount significance to national security?

Addressing the fairness of media coverage, Boehlert compares the media’s treatment of Bill Clinton to their treatment of Trump:

“Not surprisingly, Clinton administration alumni are expressing their shock at how the Beltway press corps, which spent most of the ’90s madly pursuing a Democratic president and the GOP-generated scandals around him, seems to have suddenly decided that cozying up to an administration under fire is the best option. “For a moment in 1998 I thought why don’t we get a political flunky to review the Starr report and release a 4 page letter exonerating the President”, former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart tweeted facetiously.”

And in a March 25 Daily KOS Diary[1], Boehlert drew a more relevant comparison:

“If the roles were reversed, you’d be damn sure the press would be leading a crusade for more information. If Obama had fired the director of the FBI because that person was investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails, and then had installed someone at the DOJ who had written that he didn’t think Clinton should be indicted, and then that person was given the option of indicting Clinton, decided not to do so, and refused to make public all the evidence behind that decision? It would be Katie bar the door as far as the press was concerned.”

Media coverage sets the tone for our thoughts and attitudes.  The media’s message becomes woven into our beliefs.  The mainstream media needs to look in the mirror and hold themselves accountable for the changes happening in this country.  Because they make the message.


[1]The press plays along with AG William Barr’s obstruction of justice ploy

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