Attorney General, Im-Politic, journalism, Mainstream Media, media bias, obstruction of justice, Pulitzer Prize, Robert S. Mueller III, Special Counsel, The New York Times, Trump, Trump-Russia, Washington Post, William P. Barr
Here are two suggestions for the folks at Columbia University’s journalism school who each year award the Pulitzer Prizes for that so-called profession: First, in addition to citing reporters and editors whose work supposedly embodies journalistic excellence, they should identify news people whose performance is a complete disgrace. Second, they could easily kick off this practice next year by shaming the Washington Post and New York Times articles this morning revealing that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has complained to Attorney General William P. Barr about Barr’s descriptions of his report on Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election and President Trump’s reactions to the Mueller probe.
Both pieces – and the reporters and editors responsible – completely mis-characterized the Mueller concerns that they eventually went on to portray accurately. And they committed the unforgivable journalistic (and broader ethical) sin of accentuating the negative when the case for focusing on the positive was at least equally strong.
Specifically, the thrust of the two pieces was that Mueller in a letter to Barr expressed objections to Barr’s March 24 letter to Congressional judiciary committee leaders summarizing the “principal conclusions reached by the Special Counsel and the results of his investigation,” and informing them of the status of Barr’s “initial review” of the report.
But any reader who finished the articles would discover that, contrary to the headlines and the opening paragraphs, Mueller was most irked not by any of Barr’s actions or writings, but by the press coverage. According to the Post reporters (who claim to have seen the Mueller letter), the Special Counsel did write to the Attorney General (his Justice Department superior) that the March 24 Barr communique to Congress
“did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions. There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
But farther into the story, readers are told that the following day, when the two spoke by phone, “Mueller said he was concerned that media coverage of the obstruction investigation was misguided and creating public misunderstandings about the office’s work, according to Justice Department officials.”
Moreover – and this is crucial – “When Barr pressed Mueller on whether he thought Barr’s memo to Congress was inaccurate, Mueller said he did not but felt that the media coverage of it was misinterpreting the investigation, officials said.”
So the question needs to be asked: Why wasn’t the emphasis in the Post story Mueller’s statement that Barr had accurately summarized his report, and that he thought the press coverage was awful? And by extension, why wasn’t the headline something on the order of “Mueller praises Barr summary as accurate; slams media interpretations”?
The Times story followed the same pattern and therefore embodied the same fatal flaws. In particular, it wasn’t until the seventh paragraph that readers learn that
“‘The special counsel emphasized that nothing in the attorney general’s March 24 letter was inaccurate or misleading,’ a Justice Department spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, said in response to a request for comment made on Tuesday afternoon. A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.”
As a result, it, too, could have been – and indeed should have been – structured along lines favorable to Barr, not critical of him. Indeed, here the argument for such an approach is even stronger than for the Post piece, since the evidence of Barr’s accuracy comes from a named official spokesperson, not from anonymous sources.
Last week, a major national poll found that American voters’ distrust of “political news” had hit an all-time high of 54 percent. The Post and Times coverage of Mueller’s words all but guarantees that new records on this score will soon be set – and is sending a message to the Pulitzer folks that something like a Hall of Shame is needed to start getting journalism off its current irresponsible track.