It’s clear what journalists must do in the wake of Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report: continue to aggressively pursue the Trump-Russia story, and not give one damn inch to partisan critics or even hyperbolically critical colleagues.
It’s too soon to veer into introspection or self-flagellation—because the work is not yet complete. Heck, the full Mueller report—which is reportedly at least 300 pages long—hasn’t even been released.
I fear, though, that a media hypersensitive about charges of liberal bias might not be up to the task. That straight news journalists and purported centrist pundits have felt the need to declare Barr’s summary an unequivocal political win for President Trump is disturbing enough. That others seem cowed by irate claims that coverage of the Trump-Russia connections represents the biggest media failure since the WMD debacle is worse. The media went wrong on WMD because it wasn’t critical enough of Bush administration claims; now it’s being slammed for being too critical of the Trump administration.
Consider an alternative universe in which the media had largely ignored or downplayed the Russia story and only published vague updates about occasional court filings in short stories buried deep inside newspapers or in 30-second soundbites on air. Imagine that before this weekend, we had known none of this:
- Top Trump campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr. and White House adviser Jared Kushner, had eagerly met with a Kremlin-linked attorney with the expressed purpose to collude with a foreign adversary trying to undermine our election process.
- Trump confidante Roger Stone repeatedly tried to make secret contact with WikiLeaks, even as that media outlet was about to begin well-timed releases of stolen emails that would damage the presidential prospects of Hillary Clinton.
- President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey at least partly because of the Russia probe; Comey had refused to pledge personal loyalty to Trump; and the president had spent weeks, if not months, behind the scenes trying to assert his influence over various investigations that could involve the Trump family.
- President Trump was furious with Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not “protecting” him against the Russia probe.
- President Trump had continued pursuing a Trump Tower Moscow deal long after he had won the Republican nomination.
- President Trump took unprecedented steps to conceal the contents of meetings with Vladimir Putin and bragged to Russian officials visiting the White House that he had gotten rid of Comey.
- President Trump repeatedly took the word of Putin over U.S. intelligence officials about Russian involvement in our 2016 election cycle.
- President Trump’s longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen said Trump wanted him to lie to Congress.
- President Trump and Trump officials spent months repeatedly lying about all of this, and more.
Imagine that instead of Barr releasing a four-page summary of the Mueller report saying there was no criminal-level conspiracy between Trump and the Russian government, we instead learned about the facts above for the first time. How different would things seem today? Instead of claims of liberal media bias, the media would (rightly) be scolded for having fallen asleep at the wheel during one of the most consequential eras of abuse of power in the country’s recent history.
Because of that, it feels as though the media did its job too well, forcing out into the public disturbing facts long before Special Counsel Robert Mueller and staff could wrap up their work. The media also went wrong because it was too deferential to Mueller.
The odd thing is that none of the most adamant media critics are arguing against any of the facts above. They instead ignore all of the impressive journalistic work that went into informing the public about all those misdeeds—and many more—and focus on media personalities who went well beyond the established facts, and sometimes trumpeted rank speculation and even conspiracy theories.
Media members who did those things should be held to account. But what the harshest media critics are doing now can end up doing just as much damage, or more. Unwittingly, they are allowing Trump and Trump administration officials to whitewash the president’s extremely concerning behavior. And they are seeding the ground for the president’s actions to establish new precedent.
Their reaction to the Barr letter is particularly hypocritical. Even as they say they want the full Mueller report released, they have jumped to firm conclusions about the report anyway and say it is illegitimate to think that Barr would have massaged the report to spin it in a way most favorable to his boss—even though previous reporting suggested Trump chose Barr largely because of Barr’s screed against the Russia probe. And they believe questioning Barr’s decision to not charge Trump with obstruction of justice is just an attempt to hold on to a delusion because the Barr letter said there was no underlying crime.
It is well-established law that the presence of a proven underlying, related crime is not necessary to commit obstruction. Not only that, we know the president lies about facts big and small. There are numerous reasons why Trump might have purposefully obstructed justice even if he believed the Mueller team would not have been able to establish a criminal level of conspiracy with Russia. For journalists to look the other way now is to pave the way for future presidents to shut down any criminal investigation at any time for any reason with no accountability.
Finally, compare the reaction to the Barr letter to what happened when the FBI declared Hillary Clinton had committed no crime, even if she had mishandled her emails. We are being urged—no, we are being commanded—to move on from the Russia probe. That wasn’t what we were urged to do with Clinton. No straight news journalist or centrist pundit declared no indictment meant Clinton had won an unequivocal political victory. They didn’t say that put the email scandal to rest. Instead, the media kept digging, kept exploring Clinton’s use, and even helped Russia, through WikiLeaks, amplify Clinton’s stolen emails all the way through the final days of the election.
We didn’t stop after the government said Clinton was no longer exposed to criminal charges, because we knew the story was never just about misdeeds that could be proven in a court of law.
That’s still true. That’s why this is no time to back off. We must keep pushing forward. That a loud chorus of Trump supporters and others will question our motives or like us less is a hazard of the job. We all knew that before we signed up to take on this important responsibility. We can’t give in now.