The Mueller report’s conclusions are bound to fuel conservative critics of the media and make any exposures of actual wrongdoing less impactful, as the president will be able to brush it off as another example of fake news.
WASHINGTON – Friday marked the end of months of speculation, as Special Counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller delivered his report into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election to the attorney general. The headline conclusion of Mueller’s report was reported far and wide: there would be no new indictments for collusion. As the New York Times reported, Mueller “would not recommend new indictments, a statement aimed at ending speculation that Mr. Trump or other key figures might be charged down the line.”
No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2019
The president has claimed a total victory. This is certainly overstepping the mark as Trump’s attorney general’s summary notes that, “while this report does not conclude the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” and leaves it undecided whether he obstructed justice or not. Nor does it claim that Russia had no involvement in the election.
However, the news that the 22-month investigation concluded that there was no collusion between Trump and Russia came as very welcome relief to the supporters of the president and a crushing blow to much of the corporate media that had been engulfed by the idea that Trump was a Kremlin-controlled traitor for the best part of three years. Chief among those was MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, the highest-rated cable news program, which covers Russia more than all other topics combined.
The sheer quantity of media attention the theory receives is matched by its shrill and alarmist tone. Keith Olbermann shouted at his viewers that we were now at war with “Russian scum” and that Trump and all those who do not resist him are “traitors to this country” and should be dealt with immediately.
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) December 13, 2016
The Washington Post described Russia’s actions as an “act of war” while the New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman described the Russian “hack” of the elections as a 9/11- or Pearl Harbor-scale event on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) decried Trump’s inaction, stating: “Imagine if FDR had denied that the Japanese had attacked us at Pearl Harbor…Russia is destroying our country!” The bellicose language even spread to some alternative media outlets. The Intercept’s James Rison, for instance, declared that Donald Trump was a “traitor.”
If RussiaGate really does constitute a new 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, it is useful to remember what sort of response that implies is appropriate. 9/11 led to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq that left millions dead or displaced and an entire region of the globe ruined, while Pearl Harbor led to the U.S.’ entry into the bloodiest war in human history and the dropping of two atomic bombs. And everyone knows what the punishment for traitors is.
The nebulous language of the reporting, using undefined words like “collusion” and “hacking” that could mean all things to all people, has muddied the waters as well. Words such as these have been bandied about so liberally that a majority of Democrats have come to believe that Russia had hacked into the voting machines in November 2016, stuffing the ballot boxes with Trump votes and swinging the election in his favor. In the era of fake news and information bubbles, this sort of reporting does little to dampen passions.
Worse still, the mainstream press has not been above printing fake news itself, publishing a great number of stories about Trump and Russia that turned out to be false. For example, the Washington Post – which promised to uphold the highest standards in journalism in fact-checking and resisting Trump, and whose slogan is “democracy dies in darkness” – published a story headlined “Russian hackers penetrated US electricity grid through a utility in Vermont, officials say.” It featured the Governor of the state claiming that “one of the world’s leading thugs, Vladimir Putin” had attacked the U.S. electricity grid and that all Americans should be both “alarmed and outraged” and must “vigorously pursue” Russia.
The alarming news went viral and was picked up around the world by many outlets. However, the mundane reality was that there was no attack whatsoever, merely that Burlington Electric had found that one of its laptops, unconnected to the grid, had some malware on it that was possibly Russian in origin. Long after the damage had been done, the Post changed the story.
For a number of years U.S. officials at the embassy in Havana, Cuba, have been complaining of headaches. The source of these maladies? On the basis of nothing, NBC and many other outlets claimed secret Russian forces were using an experimental new sonic or microwave cannon on the embassy. What motive they would have for this, why they would do it in Cuba and why the Cuban government would allow such a blatant act of war went unasked as the story went viral, causing an outrage in Democratic circles.
A few months later the real source for the headaches was found: the high-pitched piercing chirp of Caribbean crickets during mating season. “Crickets” was also the response to the question if anyone or any organization promoting or disseminating this dangerous fake news would face any repercussions.
Punishing the doubters
In contrast, those doubting the extent of Russian involvement in U.S. politics and questioning the mainstream narrative — such as Glenn Greenwald, Aaron Maté and Matt Taibbi — have been ostracized from the media they are questioning. Meanwhile changes to the algorithms of online giants like Google, YouTube and Twitter, ostensibly to fight fake news and Russian interference, have led to catastrophic reductions in search traffic for alternative media that have questioned the Russia narrative. AlterNet experienced a 63 percent reduction in Google traffic almost overnight after the algorithm change, The Intercept 19 percent, WikiLeaks.org 30 percent and Democracy Now! 36 percent. As usual, those who question power pay the price while those that compliment or amplify it are rewarded.
It was a similar story during the build up to the Iraq War, where journalists who repeated the lies of U.S. officials (like Robert Mueller) faced no censure for promoting false information, while those who stood up to power (and were proven correct) were fired and silenced. MSNBC took Jesse Ventura off the air and canceled Phil Donahue’s highly-rated show for their opposition to the invasion. Meanwhile, after giving an anti-war speech in Illinois, the New York Times’ Chris Hedges chose to jump before his bosses sacked him.
Broken eggs in Mueller basket
The conclusion of the Mueller report has hit liberals extremely hard, as he and his inquiry were being held up as the Democrats’ trump card in removing the president from office. For many, it was a question of when, rather than if, Trump would be impeached. The former FBI director, famous for lying to the U.S. about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is treated almost as a deity by many. Saturday Night Live, a bastion of the “resistance,” performed a festive song and dance number entitled “all I want for Christmas is Mueller,” while Robert Mueller devotional candles are available for sale online.
Unfortunately, it appears that the chief RussiaGate peddlers have taken the report’s findings in their stride. Rachel Maddow and CNN have simply moved the goalposts, demanding a full release of the inquiry before drawing any conclusions. And the New York Times and Washington Post columnists continue to write without as much as a mea culpa from any of them. There will be little introspection, let alone layoffs. This is unfortunate because some reflection is certainly needed.
A short two-minute video for those of you in the media pitifully insisting that no media reckoning is needed and journalists performed beautifully, soberly and responsibly throughout this whole saga: pic.twitter.com/PF5s2kTcYA
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) March 25, 2019
Despite nearly three years of constant, round-the-clock coverage, the media was unable to convince the population of the importance of Trump-Russia collusion. Gallup polls found that fewer than 1 percent of Americans consider the situation with Russia to be the top problem facing the country. The Mueller report’s conclusions are bound to fuel conservative critics of the media and make any exposures of actual wrongdoing less impactful, as the president will be able to brush it off as another example of fake news. Only 38 percent of Americans agree that the news media does a good job distinguishing fact from fiction, and Mueller’s findings are being claimed as a vindication for Trump. This will likely boost his popularity, making it substantially more likely he will win the 2020 presidential election.
The misreporting of collusion could be seen as another case of journalists failing upwards. However, it could also be argued they did not fail, but succeeded in manufacturing consent for a particular view of the world among their liberal base, keeping them ginned up on the false belief that Trump was about to be impeached. Unfortunately, that hope has now gone and grim reality bites.
Top photo | President Donald Trump, center, walks away after speaking to the media following his arrival on Marine One helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House, March 24, 2019, in Washington. Pablo Martinez Monsivais | AP
Alan MacLeod is an academic and writer for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. His book, Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting was published in April.