The Media Today

How the press changed its tune on William Barr

April 19, 2019

In January, William Barr was Trump’s nominee for attorney general. When he went to the Senate for his confirmation hearing, the stakes were high: if given the job, Barr would take on oversight of the Robert Mueller investigation. The men who had held that responsibility before him—Rod Rosenstein and Matthew Whitaker—had attracted voracious and (especially in Whitaker’s case) highly skeptical media attention. On the whole, the coverage of Barr felt more subdued and credulous. Barr, a Washington insider who already served as attorney general, under George H.W. Bush, was widely portrayed as a man of integrity. Following his hearing, many journalists led with Barr’s repeat assertions that he would resist any pressure to curtail the Mueller probe. “Maybe the biggest thing he said today is that he is loyal to the job and the laws he discharges, not to any person,” Chris Cuomo said on CNN. Barr, he added, has a “rigid sense of independence.”

By Wednesday night—the eve of the Mueller report’s public release—Cuomo had changed his tune. “Every step so far has been this AG making a choice to do right by the president and wrong by you,” he fumed, looking down the camera. “No, Mr. Barr is not ‘Mr. By The Book.’ He’s ‘No Holds Barr.’” In recent weeks, Barr has seen a vicious narrative shift against him. His initial four-page summary of the Mueller report, delivered to Congress in late March, attracted increasingly intense scrutiny, particularly after The New York Times reported that Mueller investigators thought it a misleading summary of their work. As the publication of the report neared, the questions over Barr’s intentions grew louder. Had he misrepresented Mueller’s findings? (Yes, it turned out.) Had he given White House lawyers advance information about the report? (Yes, it turned out.) Would his redactions be justifiable? (It’s hard to answer that one, because of all the redactions.)

ICYMI: In the Mueller report, Sarah Huckabee Sanders admitted she misled reporters

Yesterday, at 9.30am ET, Barr used a press conference to spin the forthcoming report in Trump’s favor. Echoing Trump’s favored catchphrase, Barr said fives times that there had been no collusion. (Mueller did not actually rule on “collusion” because it isn’t a legally meaningful concept.) Barr admitted, for the first time, that he “disagreed” with the “legal theories” on obstruction that Mueller put forward. (He had previously implied that Mueller was agnostic on that question.) And he excused Trump’s documented efforts to thwart the probe as a product of legitimate anger and frustration, driven “by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”

If the press conference was a transparent attempt to get out ahead of the report’s actual findings, it also had the effect of planting Barr in the day’s first negative headlines. Even Fox was not friendly. “The attorney general seemed almost to be acting as the counselor for the defense, the counselor for the president, rather than the Attorney General,” Chris Wallace told viewers. Many others used that framing, too. On MSNBC, Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor, said that he used to see Barr as a “principled institutionalist,” but now suspects that “he is not what I thought him to be.” Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern assailed Barr’s presser as “Pravda-style propaganda.” New York’s Jonathan Chait called for Congress to impeach Barr. This morning, the front page of the New York Daily News screams, “LOW BARR,” referring to “Trump’s toady AG.”

It was all very different from January. There’s no shame in changing your tune when the available facts change. But Barr’s approach to his position had been entirely foreseeable. The Wall Street Journal reported late last year that Barr, as a private citizen, had sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department excoriating Mueller’s obstruction inquiry as “fatally misconceived.” That reflected an expansive view of executive authority dating back to the Bush years, when Barr told H.W. that he could start a war in the Persian Gulf without Congressional approval, then advised him to issue pardons in the Iran-Contra affair, curtailing it before unseen evidence could come to light. More recently, Barr even suggested debunked Uranium One allegations against the Clintons were a weightier matter than the Mueller probe.

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In January, a number of reporters and commentators did point all of this out. But the coverage wasn’t focused enough to move the dial on our perception of Barr: that he was a stalwart, experienced lawman who’d let justice take its course. That view has not aged well. Hindsight can be 20/20. But there was never any good reason to give Barr the benefit of the doubt.

Below, more on Barr and Mueller day:

  • A blow-by-blow account: As journalists trawled through the Mueller report, CJR liveblogged the day’s media takeaways, including Sarah Sanders’s admission that she misled the press, a temperature shift at Fox News, and CJR’s citation in the footnotes. Wrapping up, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, wrote that the report could “finally be the turn that convinces a surprisingly credulous White House press corps—credulous in spite of everything we’ve seen—that Trump’s words have lost their value, that his history, now enshrined in Mueller, of lying to and about the press to further his interests and save his presidency should now be reflected in everything we say about him.”
  • No collusion: Betsy Morais, our managing editor, focused on how Trump—and the press—shaped the story of the investigation by using the word “collusion.” Collusion, Mueller makes clear, is “not on the menu—what we’ve got is criminal conspiracy. To say ‘No Collusion’ after reading as far as page two is like entering a Chinese restaurant and ordering linguini.”
  • Doing too well? Another key takeaway from yesterday: Mueller confirmed a slew of details that major outlets already reported (and Trump previously lied about). Ironically, however, all that good journalism may have lessened the report’s impact, as Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman write in the Times: “If the American public or members of Congress were learning these things for the first time, the political fallout would normally be devastating… If people are not surprised or shocked by the revelations, then Mr. Trump may have benefited by the steady drip of news stories he has so loudly criticized.”
  • Contradicting BuzzFeed: In January, BuzzFeed’s claim that Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress was rebuked in a rare statement from the special counsel’s office. Yesterday, we learned that Mueller had not been able to establish that such a direction was given. Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor, addressed that finding in a post. “As a matter of what constitutes a crime, Mueller has the last word, and his characterization has the force of law,” Smith writes. “But that isn’t the only question.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, after riots broke out following a police search in Derry, Northern Ireland, shots were fired, and a 29-year-old woman was killed. Police are treating it as a “terrorist incident”; the New IRA is suspected. Overnight, reports emerged that the victim was Lyra McKee, an author and journalist who worked as an editor for Mediagazer and contributed to publications including The Atlantic and BuzzFeed. McKee had written extensively about Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” and was reportedly covering the Derry riots when she was killed. The National Union of Journalists told the BBC that McKee was “one of the most promising journalists” in Northern Ireland.
  • Reporters Without Borders published its annual World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries on the strength of their press-freedom climate. The US ranks 48th—a drop of three places from last year. Brazil, under authoritarian new president Jair Bolsonaro, and Saudi Arabia, whose officials murdered Jamal Khashoggi in October, both also dropped three places, to 105th and 172nd, respectively. For the first time in three years, North Korea is not at the bottom of the list. That honor goes to Turkmenistan.
  • The National Enquirer is off the market. The Post’s Sarah Ellison reports that James Cohen, CEO of Hudson News, is buying the publication for $100 million, with sister tabloids the Globe and the National Examiner thrown in for good measure. (The sale price was higher than many expected.) The deal marks the end of the Enquirer’s scandal-ridden association with David Pecker, the Trump-friendly CEO of American Media Inc., and Dylan Howard, who oversaw its editorial content.
  • A Mueller-day news dump at Facebook: the company updated an old blog post admitting that it improperly stored “millions” of Instagram passwords, not “tens of thousands,” as it had previously claimed. This week, Facebook also confirmed that it’s adding, a subsidiary of the right-wing Daily Caller, as a fact-checking partner. (CheckYourFact and another new partner, Science Feedback, were approved by Poynter’s International Fact Checking Network Board.) CJR’s Mathew Ingram writes that Facebook “has gone out of its way to try to prove that it is not biased against conservatives.”
  • For CJR, Isabela Dias follows the story of Sabrina Bittencourt, an activist in Brazil who was widely reported to have killed herself earlier this year. Some journalists now suspect that Bittencourt—who received death threats after taking down a prominent faith healer with her exposure of his conduct—is not dead but in hiding. Either way, coverage of the case has attracted criticism. As Bruna de Lara wrote for The Intercept, “Working to prove that this woman has forged her death so she can stay alive is to put her head back in a guillotine.”
  • This week—days before the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting—authorities shut down hundreds of schools in Colorado as they searched for an armed woman who was said to be “infatuated” with the massacre. Mother Jones’s Mark Follman reports that Columbine—and the continued media coverage of its perpetrators—has now inspired more than 100 copycat plots. “Experts have learned a lot since 1999 about behaviors and motivations that can lead to gun rampages, including the allure of the media spotlight,” he writes. “It’s time to bury the Columbine shooters.”
  • And a judge dismissed a defamation case brought by Jason Miller, a former Trump adviser, against Will Menaker, a co-host of the socialist podcast Chapo Trap House.

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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.