The media today: New York Times Mueller scoop exposes parallel media worlds

For a moment last night, the winter chill was replaced with memories of May. The New York Times’s was responsible for the time warp, dropping an evening exclusive reminiscent of last spring’s scoop war with The Washington Post. Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman reported that President Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June, only to be talked out of the decision when White House lawyer Donald McGahn threatened to quit if he did so.

Competing outlets scrambled to match the Times’s reporting and cable channels, with one notable exception, went into BREAKING NEWS mode. Haberman called into CNN, while Schmidt talked with MSNBC. As I often do in moments like this, I flipped to Fox News, where Tucker Carlson focused on a 13-year-old picture of then-Senator Barack Obama before briefly mentioning the Times’s story. But Carlson’s lack of interest was just the appetizer for Sean Hannity’s head-spinning denial-confirmation-so what? approach.

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Hannity initially said his sources couldn’t confirm the story and asked, “how many times has The New York Times gotten it wrong?” Later in the hour, he came back from commercial to sheepishly admit, “Alright, we have sources tonight just confirming to [Fox News chief national correspondent] Ed Henry that, yeah, maybe Donald Trump wanted to fire the special counsel for conflict. Does he not have the right to raise those questions?” With his talking point seemingly not ready for primetime, Hannity refrained from answering his own question. “We’ll deal with this tomorrow night,” he said, then threw to a video of a car chase.

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The parallel media universes of (most of) Fox News and the rest of the world were on full display last night. For those residing in the reality-based journalism world, the Times’s scoop is a big deal. Firing Mueller would cross a red line for even some of Trump’s defenders in the legislature, and the story was front-page news in the Times and The Washington Post (though not the Wall Street Journal). With Mueller reportedly interested in questioning the president as part of his probe into Russian meddling—and the president’s apparent eagerness to do so earlier this week—Trump’s desire to dismiss the special counsel throws a curveball into the proceedings.

ICYMI: Bad news for Vice, Mashable and BuzzFeed

Below, more on the reaction to Schmidt and Haberman’s story.

  • From Davos: Trump’s response to questions about the scoop: “Fake news. Fake news. Typical New York Times. Fake stories.” The president returns from his trip to the economic forum in Switzerland later today, and he can expect more questions along those lines.
  • Flashback: Brian Stelter reminds us that Newsmax CEO and Trump confidante Christopher Ruddy said in June that Trump considered dismissing Mueller. At the time, the White House denied the story. CNN compiled eight examples of the administration pushing back against reports that Trump wanted to fire the special counsel.
  • Avoiding another “Saturday Night Massacre”: The Washington Post’s follow-up quotes Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Charlie Dent crediting McGahn for having “prevented an Archibald Cox moment,” referring to the special prosecutor ordered fired by President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate investigation.
  • Back on CNN: One notable cable news analyst last night: Ryan Lizza, who was fired from The New Yorker for alleged sexual misconduct, is back on CNN. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reported that CNN conducted its own investigation into Lizza’s behavior and quoted a network statement that said, “CNN has found no reason to continue to keep Mr. Lizza off the air.”


Other notable stories

ICYMI: The story the NYTimes, BuzzFeed didn’t want to publish

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of author Ursula K. Le Guin.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.