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Intelligencer Chat: Did ‘the Media’ Screw Up the Trump-Russia Story?

Photo: Ting Shen/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Jonathan Chait, Benjamin Hart, and Max Read discuss accusations that the mainstream press hyped up special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in an irresponsible manner.

Ben: Since the anticlimactic release of William Barr’s letter last weekend, many on the right, joined by a few prominent figures on the left (Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, etc.), have gone hard with their accusations that mainstream news sources — especially cable news, but also including this magazine, among other places — were utterly wrong about the arc and scope of the Trump-Russia story, and that the entire media apparatus is now due for a reckoning. What have you made of these critiques so far?

Jon: Obviously “the media” is a large group, and it contains bad stories and bad commentary on every topic. I do not think the coverage of the Russia scandal has, on the whole, exaggerated the size of the scandal. In some ways it has minimized it, failing to contextualize all the previous information.

Sometimes it focuses too heavily on each incremental development, but this comes at the expense of contextualizing the previous ones, which add up to a very damning picture most readers can’t keep track of.

Max: Yeah, I agree with Jon — one problem with this “discussion” (characteristic of “discussions” on Twitter) is that it suffers from a lack of specificity. Who is “the media”? What, specifically, have “they” gotten wrong? In the case of the right, the accusations mostly seem to have a partisan motive, i.e., to discredit the press and whatever other enemies of the administration they can identify.

Ben: Right. “The media” has long been one of the laziest tropes around.

Jon: There are figures who confidently predicted Mueller would bring criminal charges against Trump, but I think these are mostly Twitter personalities who have been mostly (though perhaps not entirely) walled off from the MSM.

Max: In the case of people like Greenwald … I don’t know, it seems as much like he’s lashing out against silly resistance-Twitter figures as he is at big news institutions or organizations.

Jon: Right, Greenwald’s method relies heavily on elevating marginal figures and making them stand-ins for the entire media.

Max: All that being said: I think there is good evidence that lots of the speculation on cable news, specifically CNN and MSNBC, was wildly overblown and irresponsible.

Jon: Though maybe those people have more influence than we realized? I don’t watch much television news, but almost every scandal tends to be covered in a breathless tone.

Max: Clearly those people have influence over Greewald’s attention. Not sure they have influence elsewhere.

Jon: I’m sure those people are invading his Twitter mentions constantly.

Max: Yes, I don’t know that cable news coverage of Mueller was worse than cable news coverage of anything, except in the sense that the Mueller story was potentially much bigger and more important than, say, the missing plane.

Jon: I was a teenager during Iran-Contra, and I remember portentous coverage all the time. It seemed like the story was everything.

I once saw some debate on Twitter where Greenwald was being called a Russian agent. I stated that he is definitely not a Russian agent, which seemed almost like a given, but he appeared genuinely grateful that I said this, as if it’s even a question. Maybe in his world, the crazy looms much larger.

Ben: Marginal figures aside, is there a valid critique that many actual journalists did not consider the possibility that there was less to the Trump-Russia story than met the eye?

Jon: The problem is, we don’t know if there’s less than meets the eye. What we know is that there’s not a chargeable crime against Trump. I can’t think of anybody who treated that as a slam-dunk possibility, except your Louise Mensch types. It gives me no pleasure to report this.

Ben: True, though I was a little surprised, and I think many of us were, that there were no further indictments and no verdict on coordination with Russia.

Jon: Good point. Why no Jerome Corsi indictment? That’s weird.

Ben: Right, I was expecting some marginal figure like that, at least.

Max: I guess the question I keep having is what the Times or the Post or the Journal mishandled. It seems really possible that they did get a story badly wrong, but I haven’t seen much evidence. So far the person who seems to have gotten this wrongest, Mensch aside, is John Brennan, who is not “the media.”

Jon: I’m not sure what verdict on coordination with Russia there is — Barr’s language was so vague it might not have really said anything about that.

Ben: I agree. But one could say that outlets spent too much time and space on it.

Jon: I don’t think so at all. It’s a huge scandal. I agree that it’s not a huge issue for Democrats, but running Democratic messages is not the media’s job.

Max: The thing that keeps getting weirdly elided is that presidential advisers were charged with crimes! Or, campaign advisers, at any rate. It’s not like nothing has been happening for a year except speculation.

Jon: Sometimes I come across old stories about this and get shocked, before I realize it’s a year old. There’s so much out there!

Ben: Yes, it became an expectations game — Mueller seemed to be building his way to the top of the Trump pyramid, month by month, and people figured something bigger was going to happen. So now, an actual successful investigation that produced indictments and prison terms seems like a letdown.

Max: I think part of the issue here for Greenwald and some of the people on the left is that they’re using a sort of media-process argument to make a political argument

Jon: I would say the Mueller-as-Superman meme might have infected the media too strongly.

Ben: What do you mean, Max?

Max: I guess I mean that the objection to the Mueller investigation among the sort of rank-and-file Twitter left isn’t really that “nothing happened.” It’s that an account of Trump’s election that blamed “Russian interference” was incomplete and distracting, and that focus on the Mueller investigation meant looking away from real issues.

Jon: Greenwald also disputed that Russia hacked the emails, and Taibbi questioned the intel finding that Russia was trying to help Trump win.

Max: Yeah, Greenwald is a frustrating figure in all of this because he’s making the worst possible argument on the biggest possible platform.

Ben: As is so often the case, the people who want a full accounting of their enemies’ mistakes resist any accounting of their own mistakes.

Jon: It’s fundamentally ideological with the left, which is honorable in a way.

Max: Heh, I guess what I’m saying is that I wish it were MORE ideological.

Jon: The Russia scandal helps or is in some way connected to hawkish Russia policies, even if it doesn’t necessitate them. That’s the starting point for Greenwald/Taibbi. The Russia scandal makes Russia the bad guy, it makes neocons the good guys (or at least not the central villains), and it casts some suspicion on dovish policy toward Russia. Obviously it centers the Bernie or Bust movement’s anger toward Hillary as a key villain. It dismisses the substantive importance of the DNC hacks, which Greenwald and his allies very much played up. It also casts Assange as a Russian tool. Basically, the story flatters all their enemies and makes his allies look bad. Nobody likes stories like that

Ben: Max, how do you want it to be more ideological?

Max: I think “the media got the Mueller report wrong” is more or less a statement of fact that we can assess based on evidence. And I don’t think the evidence really supports it, outside the significant and important case of cable news. When I say I’d rather the objections were ideological, I mean that I’d rather they explicitly focused on questions of politics than on media behavior.

“Liberal attention to the Mueller report is a waste of resources better served organizing an electoral political response to Donald Trump” is obviously an arguable contention. But it’s a much more supportable position than “the Mueller report was a nothingburger that the media completely fucked up.” Does that make sense?

Ben: I believe it does.

Max: I would just add, by the way, that I feel like I’m letting cable news off the hook here??

Ben: Feel free to go off on it!

Max: Every single thing I said in this conversation should be amended with: “Regardless of all other concerns, cable news is incredibly corrosive to civic culture.” Anyone who wants to hear the full rant can buy me a beer.

Ben: Max will be at Lucky Strike bar at 6:30.

Did ‘the Media’ Screw Up the Trump-Russia Story?