Journalists weren’t part of a conspiracy. They were doing their jobs.

March 25, 2019
A view of newspapers on Monday, March 25, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

On Monday morning, glowing from the conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and the delivery of Attorney General William Barr’s letter to Congress, Donald Trump tweeted a quote from Bret Baier, of Fox News: “No American conspired to cooperate with Russia in its efforts to interfere with the 2016 election, according to Robert Mueller, and that is good.” He went on to tweet the same idea a second time. With these messages, Trump signaled not only that his campaign was found not to have colluded with Russia, but also that the allegation was itself part of a conspiracy, by the press and Democrats, against his presidency. The latter has been a persistent cry: “Without the phony Russia Witch Hunt . . . my approval rating would be at 75% rather than the 50% just reported by Rasmussen,” he tweeted in December. “It’s called Presidential Harassment!”

Many have been persuaded by this narrative, reacting to the report’s release by criticizing the press for overplaying the story. Matt Taibbi, for instance, compared the media’s focus on the report to its backing of the Iraq War by buying into the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Yet the press’s role here is much less consequential, and the Mueller report is much more than a story about the press: because of the report, we now know, with certainty, that Russians actively attempted to influence the 2016 elections. That’s not nothing. Working journalists—encouraged by Trump and his supporters to feel as though they’ve taken part in a conspiracy by paying close attention to Mueller’s investigation—were simply doing what journalists are meant to do: collect all the information possible and see where it leads, even if it leads nowhere. That’s not dabbling in conspiracy theories (as Trump does when he invokes Alex Jones, for instance), it’s reporting.

ICYMI: I wrote a story that became a legend. Then I discovered it wasn’t true.

Reporting, especially of the mythical investigative sort, requires relentless obsession of a kind familiar to conspiracy theorists. Journalists must be patient, persistent, and pay attention to minute details. A reporter’s job is to notice things that no one else has noticed. (What does it mean that Barr’s letter barely quotes from Mueller’s report? Might he be spinning a version of the story?) But unlike conspiracy theorists, they take what they’ve collected, assemble the pieces, and then look at what they have with skepticism. That can mean throwing 90 percent of their work in the trash. A reporter has to expand her investigation as far as possible, and then narrow her parameters to the size of credible truth.

The news cycle surrounding Mueller’s report perverted this process. We had to wait years for the investigation to conclude—the report still has not been made public—as breadcrumbs in the form of filings and indictments were meted out. Not only did this elicit country-wide speculation, but it also encouraged reporters to wring out everything they could from the proceedings. Meanwhile, in efforts to be transparent about the reporting process—something that we’ve come to believe enhances our trustworthiness—we revealed too much of our own conspiratorial thinking. This can be seen on Twitter, especially: Ashley Feinberg, for one, posted on Saturday, “It’s…. very weird that Trump hasn’t tweeted yet.” A day later, she clarified, saying, “There’s really no conspiracy I’m trying to imply, it’s just fucking bizarre.” It’s the job of reporters to notice this kind of thing, to be sure, but Twitter gives too much weight to small questions that may be answered simply by the passage of time.

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One of the most damaging marks that the Trump presidency is leaving on the American people is collapsing journalism into the world of conspiracy. A conspiracy theory is a vast collection of details with a big gaping hole in the middle, a case missing a persuasive conclusion—and in the void, we can put whatever beliefs we’d like. Trump’s careless relationship to facts, and his gross acceptance of convenient falsehoods, have allowed conspiratorial thinking to thrive. (See, for example, the stunning prominence of the QAnon theory.) It has now become the job of the American people to hash out whether they believe every detail handed to them, often by sources they can’t easily identify, and to discover which versions of truth fit their views.

Trying to debunk conspiracy is always a trap—like trolling, any attempt to fight it only makes it stronger. Doling out more facts never actually changes people’s minds when the conspiracy sounds good. There are many people who would simply never believe that Trump colluded with Russia, even if the report said so outright. It is also a fact of life that no one reaches the truth immediately—not reporters, not ordinary people, not zen masters. We reach it, instead, step by step, questioning ourselves and others. In asking whether reporting on Mueller went too far, we’d do well to remember that this process—gradually whittling toward some semblance of what happened—can take a great deal of time.

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Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.