The Media Today

Reporters prepare to speedread the Mueller report

April 17, 2019

The Mueller report will be delivered to Congress and the public tomorrow. That’s about all we know for sure. Reporters covering the special counsel’s recently wrapped probe don’t know what the document will say. (How much will be redacted? How much of what’s left will be new information?) Nor are they sure of the exact format—so far, all we really have to go on is Attorney General William Barr’s assertion that redactions will be color-coded, and the suggestion, made by anonymous disgruntled Mueller investigators, that some sort of executive summary(ies) exist(s). Uncertainty is nothing new on the Mueller beat. Nonetheless, receiving, digesting, analyzing, and communicating 400 as-yet-mysterious pages—in real time—will pose a steep challenge for the press.

According to Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo, reporters at least have their key questions lined up ahead of time. How accurate was the brief summary that Barr already made public? How, exactly, did Mueller reach the conclusion that he couldn’t reach a conclusion on obstruction? Will the report expose any new sources of information on the president? Quickly finding answers will be a bigger challenge. As Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn puts it, “the tribes of American politics” will also be rushing to find their truth tomorrow. Administration officials and their Democratic opponents in Congress will be vying to stick their preferred narrative in the public consciousness first. On the sidelines, the Mueller-industrial-complex of armchair commentators, academics, and prosecutors-turned-pundits will only add to the noise (some more usefully than others).

ICYMI: Checking in with the Macedonian fake news strategist

In the past week, several astute observers have stressed that journalists should not take shortcuts with the report. The press, Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes write, rushed to the wrong conclusions when Barr delivered his initial summary to Congress last month. The summary was four pages; Mueller’s full report is 100 times longer. To make the most of tomorrow’s “do-over,” Jurecic and Wittes say reporters should embrace the complexity of what the report actually says, and not hype short summaries of prosecutorial judgments and the political reaction to them. “The decision not to prosecute a person for some alleged conduct is not a historical judgment that the conduct didn’t happen,” they write; Congress and the public still get to decide if the facts Mueller lays out about Trump are sufficiently damning as to require further action or reporting. Finding all those facts will take time. “You won’t fully understand what you’re looking at until reading the whole thing a first time,” Marcy Wheeler, a prominent national-security blogger, writes. “So after you read it the first time, read it again.”

In addition to reading everything the report says, it’s crucial that journalists also assess what it doesn’t say. “It is not supposed to be, contrary to many claims, a report on everything that Mueller discovered,” Wheeler writes. It is eminently possible that Mueller did not include all of his findings; those he did include, meanwhile, have been subjected to potentially invasive redactions by the Justice Department. Reporters should not assume the untouched report is comprehensive, but should apply detailed scrutiny to whatever redactions Barr makes, and not take his legalese at face value. As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote recently, Barr—who, lest we forget, has expressed a broad view of executive power on more than one occasion—has significant discretion over what gets left out. He could, hypothetically, have petitioned a court to allow the publication of grand-jury testimony.

While reporters get into the weeds, the outlets they work for have an important counter-responsibility: to keep the findings in perspective. Whatever the report says, it won’t be a satisfying end to the Mueller story. It’s likely to generate “exactly the kind of epistemological confusion this administration generates and coasts on,” as Slate’s Lili Loofbourow puts it; even if it’s damning, “we’ll always want more.” Donald Trump’s policies have a clearer real-world cost: in the past week alone, the ban on transgender troops took effect, Trump vetoed Congressional attempts to halt US support for the war in Yemen, and Barr issued an order that could keep thousands of asylum seekers in jail indefinitely. We shouldn’t let the Mueller report obscure all that.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on Trump and the impending Mueller report:

  • DNA info: The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes that the release of the report will be a minefield for the press. “The DNA of news is to find a coherent story with a single, clear headline,” George Washington University’s Frank Sesno tells Sullivan. “This is a case where the media will have to fight their own DNA.”
  • The emperor’s clothes department: Loofbourow’s piece for Slate is worth reading in full. “We fixate on secrets because secrets are how government malpractice has been accounted for in the past,” she writes. But “Trump’s wrongdoing is not private… Even the full unredacted report will probably do little but confirm much that we already know. Dealing with Trump means dealing with that fact—seeking an exposé is kind of a weird response to an emperor with no clothes.”
  • Subplots: Need a Mueller refresher ahead of tomorrow’s release? Politico’s Samuelsohn, Josh Gerstein, Cory Bennett, and Kyle Cheney wrap up the “25 subplots to watch in the Mueller investigation.”
  • The royal “we”?: Waiting, with the rest of us, is the president, who hasn’t seen the Mueller report either. In the meantime, the Times’s Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman write, “Trump is filling his idle moments—and blowing off any anticipatory steam—by turning to a familiar pastime: television.” Yesterday, Trump weighed in on Fox News’s decision to invite Bernie Sanders for a town hall, alleging that Trump supporters were shut out. In one tweet, Trump appeared to refer to Fox as “we.” Twitter noticed.

Other notable stories:

  • Wired’s Nicholas Thompson and Ken Vogelstein are out with a 12,000-word look at “15 months of fresh hell inside Facebook.” Among the nuggets to emerge: some Facebook executives “considered it a small plus that the news industry was feeling a little pain”—from reduced traffic to news content from the platform—“after all its negative coverage.” At NBC News, meanwhile, Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar obtained 4,000 pages of documents from inside the company. The trove exposes Mark Zuckerberg’s moves “to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors by treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip, while publicly proclaiming to be protecting that data.”
  • Top officials in the European Union aren’t happy with Facebook, either. As of this week, the platform requires political advertisers on the continent to register in the country where they wish to make an ad buy. The rules, which have already taken effect in the US, bid to limit foreign election interference—but EU leaders say they will hobble legitimate cross-border campaigns ahead of next month’s elections to the European Parliament. Politico’s Laura Kayali and Maïa de La Baume have the details.
  • Earlier this week, The Washington Post editorial board opposed a bill—introduced by a local lawmaker in Washington, DC—that would extend existing transparency laws to cover publicly funded charter schools. CJR’s Alexandria Neason takes issue with that stance. “For a journalistic entity—opinion section or otherwise—to advocate against a measure that seeks to increase transparency is backwards,” she writes. “The editorial board’s stance echoes the arguments of charter school operators, instead of supporting a measure that would improve access to information about taxpayer-funded entities.”
  • Two updates from the Committee to Protect Journalists: Amid a period of political upheaval, officials in Algeria expelled Aymeric Vincenot, AFP’s Algiers bureau chief, after refusing to renew his press and residency permits. And in Nepal, authorities detained Arjun Giri, editor of Tandav News, under that country’s cybercrime laws after he published an article alleging fraud by a local businessman.
  • Vox Media is buying Epic Magazine, the publisher and producer that acts as a pipeline for magazine articles to become films and TV shows. The acquisition will “boost [Vox Media’s] video storytelling capabilities and give it a stronger foothold in Hollywood,” The Hollywood Reporter’s Natalie Jarvey reports.
  • In divergent digital-revenue news, The Information, which has a famously high-priced paywall, may experiment with advertising, while HuffPost, which is free, is launching a membership program offering paid content and perks.
  • James Murdoch—newly adrift of his family’s business—could further distance himself from his father’s conservative media empire by investing in a liberal news outlet, the Financial Times reports. (Another bet? Comic books, according to The Wall Street Journal.) Meanwhile, in Australia, Robert Thomson, one of Rupert Murdoch’s top lieutenants, slammed The New York Times’s unflattering recent story about the Murdochs, calling it a “rancid hatchet job” driven by “corporate self-interest.”
  • Flying British Airways soon? You’ll have to bring your own copy of the FT. The airline has stopped offering the paper to passengers in an apparent backlash against negative coverage. Press Gazette’s James Walker has more.

ICYMI: The unsolved assassination of a journalist

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.