The Media Today

William Barr, human shield

May 3, 2019

On Wednesday, William Barr, the attorney general, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hours earlier, The Washington Post had reported that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, had sent Barr a letter in late March suggesting that Barr had misrepresented Mueller’s Russia report in his initial public summary of it. Facing the Senate, Barr was asked for an explanation. “The letter’s a bit snitty,” he replied, suggesting an underling had written it. Yesterday morning, Barr refused to meet the House Judiciary Committee, declining the offer to be grilled by staff lawyers. In his absence, Democratic lawmakers gave Barr the empty-seat-with-his-name-on-it treatment. Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, brought along a plastic chicken and a bucket of KFC. “Chicken Barr should have shown up today,” he told reporters.

The press relished the scene. Between them, the successive “hearings” proved that the Mueller spin cycle is still going strong, two weeks after his (redacted) report was finally published. The full truth of the investigation—or close to it—is now in public view, yet politicians continue to dissimulate around it. Republicans continue to back Barr as an honest broker, and accuse Democrats and reporters of working to slime him. Across the aisle, Democrats can barely contain their fury. The House Judiciary Committee threatened to hold Barr in contempt unless he handed over the unredacted version of Mueller’s report; Barr blew past Wednesday’s deadline to provide it. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said that the emergence of Mueller’s letter contradicted Congressional testimony previously given by Barr, and accused Barr of committing perjury. A spokesperson for the Justice Department called Pelosi’s language “reckless, irresponsible, and false.” The cycle continues to spin.

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The Barr/Mueller information war has played out among members of the media, too. After Wednesday’s Senate hearing, outlets on the right and left published contradictory versions of the same story. CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted that hyper-partisan websites were working overtime to profit off of the hearing: there was, he noted, “plenty of material to go around that fits into left/right ideological prisms.” The Times rounded up divergent reaction from more mainstream publications, re-upping a format that has become a staple at a time of conflicting political realities. On the right, National Review called Democratic outrage about Barr’s initial summary of the Mueller report an “incredibly dumb… non-scandal.” On the left, The Nation countered that Barr resembled “Sarah Sanders with a law degree—a shambling propagandist seeking to create confusion.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board called Barr “a real attorney general”; the media, it said, is demonizing Barr for “making the hard decisions that Mueller abdicated.” Trump tweeted the link.

As I’ve written before, Barr’s long-held, expansive view of presidential authority always merited aggressive media scrutiny. Barr’s conduct around the Mueller report has, belatedly, brought the full weight of that scrutiny to bear across most of the mainstream press. That’s a good thing. As many observers have noted, Barr is acting more like the president’s personal attorney than the impartial law enforcer his current job demands. Whatever his boosters say, Barr’s official public statements about Mueller and his report have often contradicted each other, or subsequently been found to have elided key context.

And let’s not forget, the Barr story is about Trump. Coverage should place front and center that Mueller’s report presented damning information about the president, particularly on obstruction. As the Post notes in a front-page headline this morning, Barr is proving to be the legal “shield” Trump always wanted. We shouldn’t allow Barr to shield Trump in the press, too.

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Below, more (again) on William Barr:

  • What’s the problem? On Wednesday, in front of the Senate, Barr said that the media, not William Barr, had stoked confusion around his initial summary of the Mueller report, and that Mueller had said as much in a subsequent phone call. “I received the letter, and called Bob and said what’s the issue here?” Barr said. “I asked him if he was suggesting that the March 24th letter was inaccurate, and he said no, but that the press reporting had been inaccurate, and that the press was reading too much into it.” Politico’s Blake Hounshell has more analysis.
  • The problem: According to the Post, Trump was pleased by Barr’s performance before the Senate. “A White House official said that Barr had ‘set the narrative’ in a way that was positive for the White House and that the swirling debate about the special counsel has just been ‘noise.’” Keen to lock this narrative down, the administration is refusing to comply with Democratic oversight requests. Yesterday, Trump said that he doesn’t want Don McGahn—the White House counsel turned key Mueller witness—to testify to Congress. “Congress shouldn’t be looking anymore,” Trump told Fox News. “This is all. It’s done.”
  • Democratic deflection? Senior Congressional Democrats, too, deserve scrutiny over their moves to put Barr front and center—they’re going after the attorney general, critics suggest, to deflect from divisions in the caucus about the wisdom of going after Trump. “Stop with this nonsense and take a vote on who wants to see the president fired. Get senators on the record,” Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith argues. Accountability will not be served “as long as public servants in the House and Senate limit their demands for impeachment to tweets and press releases, and we citizens remain content to be entertained by our leaders dunking on authoritarians in a hearing.”


Other notable stories:

  • Today is World Press Freedom Day, as designated by the United Nations. For CJR, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, argues that defending press freedom requires us to advocate for people and views we find noxious. “I am gratified when the people in the United States and around the world stand up for the rights of journalists they admire” like Jamal Khashoggi and Maria Ressa, Simon writes. “But I worry too few are willing to stand up for the value of a free press more broadly.”
  • Yesterday, Facebook banned Alex Jones, Infowars, Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, Paul Nehlen, and Louis Farrakhan from its platforms over their dangerous speech. Jones and Infowars had already been banned by Facebook last year; they’re now being kicked off Instagram, too, and all posts linking to Infowars content will be removed, unless a user is explicitly condemning it. It appears Facebook told multiple news outlets about the ban ahead of time, under embargo, drawing criticism that the move was a coordinated PR stunt. Not hard to believe, especially since some affected accounts remained live after the story broke.
  • Dathel and John Georges, owners of The New Orleans Advocate, have acquired the New Orleans Times-Picayune and its website,, from Advance Media. The two papers will be merged into one publication, which will debut in June. Leaders of the Advocate say that the new outlet will be “hiring from current and Times-Picayune employees”; for now, however, Times-Picayune staffers appear to be out of work.
  • Yesterday, Stephen Moore, Trump’s nominee to the Federal Reserve, “withdrew” his candidacy—hours after telling the press he was all in—after Trump tweeted that Moore had decided to step back. Moore—who, the Times reports, was not properly vetted by the White House—came under pressure after journalists dug up his controversial past writings. This week, Republican senators indicated that they would not support him.
  • Yesterday morning, Michael Bennet, the Democratic senator for Colorado, went on CBS This Morning to announce his presidential bid. Bennet’s declaration means that his brother, James Bennet, editorial page editor at the Times, is recusing himself from “any editorial, Op-Eds, columns or other Opinion pieces focused on candidates or major issues in the campaign.” A Times spokesperson confirmed, in an email, that the moratorium will continue “as long as Senator Bennet is in the race.”
  • On Wednesday, Marcus DiPaola, a freelance journalist, tweeted that staffers for Joe Biden aggressively hassled reporters during a campaign stop in Iowa—blocking their cameras and physically impeding them. Washingtonian’s Andrew Beaujon notes that “aggressive treatment of the press would not be new for people around Biden”: in 2013, for instance, a Biden staffer demanded that a student reporter delete photos he had taken at a public event.
  • BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray profiles Katie McHugh, a former writer for The Daily Caller and Breitbart who says she has recanted the white-nationalist ideology that made her an alt-right media star. (Breitbart fired McHugh in 2017.) “Where was McHugh radicalized?” Gray asks. “Her story is about support systems and pipelines. It’s about how an angry young conservative with reactionary views got herself involved with a small coterie of ideologues in Washington… as extremism became more popular on the right and as people could optimize themselves for success through attention on social media.”
  • Catherine Pugh, the mayor of Baltimore, has resigned. The University of Maryland Medical System, where she served as a board member, placed a large order for a children’s book she’d written, Pugh profited, and The Baltimore Sun broke the story. Since March, when the first report came out, the Sun has pursued the story aggressively.
  • And for CJR, Tiffany Stevens reports that major storms can cause more than physical damage to US newsrooms. “Storm-related trauma, among other factors, can drive journalists to seek new coverage areas, or even new professions altogether,” she writes. “An outlet may even have to cut jobs to cover the costs caused by damages.”

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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.