The Media Today

The post-Mueller rejection of cable news as journalism

March 27, 2019

There has been plenty of finger-pointing in the wake of Sunday’s long-anticipated advancement in the Mueller story, in which Attorney General William Barr provided a four-page summary of the special counsel’s report on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia. While the full report still has yet to be released, media figures on all ends of the political spectrum almost instantly had thoughts to share about it. Fox News and right-wing pundits shared the views of the Trump family and administration, predictably blasting mainstream outlets for their coverage. Mainstream outlets shifted their coverage to what other implications still exist for Trump, and the dozen or so investigations in New York of which he is a subject.

But then, once that dust settled, yet another narrative emerged from mainstream journalists, who were focusing on cable news rather than on the unreleased full Mueller report: the argument that cable news isn’t real journalism. Critics said this ostensibly as a means of distancing speculative cable news and Twitter punditry from reporting at outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Daily Beast, all of which did break news and surface new stories pertinent to the Mueller probe, from news of connections between Trump’s associates, including Don Jr., and Russians—including the now-infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting—to revelations that Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about plans for Trump Tower Moscow.

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Such reporting “mattered and provided context,” Margaret Sullivan wrote in her Washington Post column, while “the cable pundits who made a living off such speculation aren’t really journalists anyway.” This sentiment was echoed on Twitter by Nate Silver and Matt Yglesias, who speculated about why Russiagate was a topic of conversation on left-leaning cable news shows, but not in 2020 Democratic candidate talking points. “One answer is that cable news is a borderline niche product that isn’t highly reflective of the Dem electorate,” Silver said. “MSNBC executives are pretty openly uncomfortable with ideological progressive politics,” Yglesias responded. “They seemed almost embarrassed when Chris Hayes’ ratings went up and they had to keep him on the air.” (Both CNN and MSNBC declined to comment for this piece.)

It’s no surprise that Sunday’s news blindsided many liberals, in particular those who had found themselves glued to Rachel Maddow’s nightly Russia-and-Trump-themed monologues. The coverage of the investigation, particularly on cable news, likely led some to put their faith in Mueller and his investigation.

A shift of mainstream journalists choosing to distance themselves from cable news isn’t entirely without warrant. At least twice since 2016, reporters from major cable networks parted ways with their outlets after erroneous reports. Three seasoned investigative reporters resigned from CNN after reporting in a since-retracted story that a Trump aide had ties to a Russian investment firm; ABC News cut ties with investigative correspondent Brian Ross following a report that Trump had directed Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign. This is not to say CNN and MSNBC don’t do good journalism; they do. But, too often, pundits and opinion contributors are included in the same swath as reporters, and sensational commentary about Mueller undermines the good work done by journalists, to the detriment of the integrity of these newsrooms.

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The cable journalism backlash doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As Nicholson Baker wrote for CJR, cable news, once revelatory and informative, has overpoliticized us. “Cable news, because there’s so much of it, because it’s always on the prowl for new outrages and trespasses, because lurid headlines are always creeping, creeping across the bottom of the screen, feeds hatred, and feeds on hatred, and thereby corrodes the American brain,” Baker wrote. The decision by today’s media critics to reject it as journalism may be a signal that enough is enough—that by flooding the zone with wall-to-wall coverage of the Mueller probe, networks did no one any favors.

More post-Mueller news:

  • After Sunday’s Mueller summary arrived, Fox News aired 118 segments on the probe itself, of which 58 mention possible probes against those involved or seen as Trump’s enemies.
  • On MSNBC, the resistance show will go on, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reports. “We’re going to keep doing our job, asking the tough questions, especially when it involves holding powerful people accountable. This is a huge story,” MSNBC president Phil Griffin said. “The president of the United States was the subject of an investigation by our own government. That probe has produced 34 criminal indictments so far. And we know the Russians interfered with our election.”
  • Moving forward, Jack Holmes writes for Esquire, “the Fox-Trump machine wants to see retribution, not the actual Mueller report.”

Other notable stories:

  • 71 percent of those surveyed by Pew say they believe their local news outlets are doing “very or somewhat well financially,” but only 14 percent have paid or given money to local news outlets.
  • Vice’s Broadly has created a stock photo library with images of transgender and non-binary people to increase representation, per CJR’s Zainab Sultan.
  • Google is launching a new local news initiative in partnership with McClatchy to fund small, local newsrooms—first in the US, and then globally. Notably, the tech giant says it won’t have editorial control over the partnership.
  • The all-female editorial team of Women Church World, the Vatican’s women’s magazine, has resigned. The editorial board says the Vatican tried to discredit them after they published a story denouncing the widespread abuse of nuns, according to a report from The Guardian.
  • Bloomberg journalists in South Africa are struggling to work and live with routine power blackouts in the country—a big threat to an economy in which electricity-intensive manufacturing and mining account for a sizable portion of economic activity.
  • RIP Circa. Per The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, Sinclair is shutting down the website, blaming the “onerous” environment for web publishers.

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Maya Kosoff is a freelance reporter based in New York City. She's written for Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, Allure, and Business Insider.