Bear with me as I go full meta. Here in the offices of Columbia Journalism Review, we’ve been struggling to figure out how to cover the rumored imminent appearance of the Mueller report. It’s a quintessential press story, if only because the Mueller report is occupying the mind of every political reporter in the country. As MSNBC’s Ari Melber said, we’re now in “The TMZ phase of this probe.” The stakes are incredibly high, not just for the integrity of Donald Trump and the office of the presidency, but also for public trust in the electoral system and in how information travels. Besides Trump campaign staffers, others who may be implicated are executives at Facebook—for allowing Russian disinformation to travel on its platform—and members of the press—for hyping a story that, if it doesn’t bring down the president, will be one of the biggest flops in history.
But as long as the Mueller report remains something of a black box, there’s nothing to look at, nothing to cover. There’s a bunch of tense reporters sitting around, making bets about when the report is going to appear and what indictments it might contain. As per Joe Pompeo’s survey of newsroom preparations, in Vanity Fair, journalists are reading the tea leaves (or, more likely, putting their feet on their desks and beard stroking), trying to figure out, from what they do know—the anticlimactic trial of Paul Manafort, the useless testimony of Michael Cohen—what the future might hold. Some TV crews reportedly had the glamorous job of staking out the home of William Barr, the attorney general, “before they were asked to leave.”
One thing reporters have thought to do with all their free time: write potential drafts of history. They are writing A versions and B versions and C versions. For example, Mueller’s report will either be made (A) public, (B) kept private, or (C) released with redactions. When the news drops, they’ll take the version they’ve written that most closely matches reality, and add in the relevant details. This strategy was on display early this month, when the Times accidentally posted two versions of a paragraph about Brexit, each of which described a different result of a vote in the British parliament. The internet was quick to see this as not a flub, but as a display of the world we’re now living in, where moments like the election of Trump, and the vote for Brexit, and potentially the Mueller report, all seem like such unlikely developments that there must be a parallel universe somewhere, a place where these events are turning out differently.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the report shows no evidence that Trump had knowledge of collusion with Russia, even though some of his staffers were meeting with Russians. The American people will feel led on by the presence of the Mueller report at the top of their news feeds: the story was paid as much attention as Watergate, but will it amount to the equivalent of the inquiry into Benghazi? For those who followed Trump’s lead in distrusting Mueller’s team, and in making repeated calls that the investigation is a “witch hunt,” the blame will not fall on the government but on the media. Trump has been first in leading the charge for blaming the media for focusing too much on Mueller. “Too bad a large portion of the Media refuses to report the lies and corruption having to do with the Rigged Witch Hunt – but that is why we call them FAKE NEWS!” he tweeted in August. And, on March 18, he primed his Twitter followers for vindication: “Wow! A Suffolk/USA Today Poll, just out, states, “50% of Americans AGREE that Robert Mueller’s investigation is a Witch Hunt.” @MSNBC Very few think it is legit! We will soon find out?” (That poll is flawed, according to Factcheck.org, because it asked respondents two questions at once.)
If the public groans that the press has paid the Mueller investigation too much attention, our focus as journalists should be on improving our process.
If, in the other extreme, there is significant evidence of collusion, the media won’t get a round of applause. More likely, the Mueller report won’t pave such a clean path. (History, the British columnist Iain Martin wrote this week of Brexit, is seen as a “sweeping movement of powerful forces.” In reality, he argued, it’s made by “a series of interrelated cock-ups made by tired leaders in a hurry.”) There will be some evidence that Trump knew about meetings with Russians, with the concession that collusion isn’t illegal. There will be some indictments, but mostly for lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Where that will leave trust in the media is unclear. Trust in the press and other public institutions has been declining for 40 years, and CJR recently conducted a poll with Reuters and Ipsos about how the public thinks journalism is done; the results show a significant gap in both trust and understanding.
Trump has focused that trust deficit into hostile energy, in the way a magnifying glass focuses a beam of light. In the two years of his administration, the press has come to represent Trump’s warring party, even more so than Democrats. The Mueller report will either indict the president’s manipulation of public interest, or the press’s. And while disinformation campaigns on social media aren’t at the center of this particular report, the reputation of the platforms will be colored by Mueller’s findings.
If the public groans that the press has paid the Mueller investigation too much attention, our focus as journalists should be on improving our process. Are we treating history too much as a set of forking paths, whose future rides on single moments—the release of a report, the election of a particular person? Are we treating politics too much as theater? Are we too competitive with each other, such that we’re drafting full stories before news has even broken? Perhaps we need focus more on recording the present than on anticipating possible futures.