In early March, Terry Moran of ABC News predicted a “huge … reckoning“ for the press if special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation did not find President Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia to steal the 2016 election.
The reckoning is now. And the consequences bode ill not just for media companies’ bottom line but for national security and electoral integrity.
On March 24, Attorney General William Barr announced Mueller’s team failed to “establish that the members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Barr also said the investigation, involving 40 agents, 2,800 subpoenas, 500 search warrants, and 500 witness interviews, could not find enough evidence “to establish that the president committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
All that remains now of the disastrously undisciplined collusion news cycle, which lasted more than two years, is a worrisome alliance between California's Silicon Valley and the federal government, the badly battered reputations of national news media, leading members of Congress, and former heads of the nation’s preeminent intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and a growing sense of fatigue and disillusionment in a public that has been badly misled.
A Washington Post survey published March 30, for example, found that adults are split 49-48 on whether members of the House of Representatives “should continue to investigate” if the president “obstructed justice.” Respondents are also split 49-45 over whether the Mueller investigation was even “worthwhile.”
[Related: Adam Schiff insists there is 'direct evidence of collusion']
A separate survey by Ipsos/Reuters after Barr’s announcement found 42% of adults think the national press’s coverage of the investigation was “mostly biased” against Trump. More troubling, however, is that 51% said they believed “some members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize President Trump through politically motivated investigations.” FBI and DOJ officials swear to uphold the constitution, not play politics with a president they don’t happen to like.
In the time it has taken for people to come to these conclusions, members of Congress have stoked a narrative alleging a virtual Russian invasion to browbeat social media companies including Facebook and Twitter into censoring online speech to “protect” public discourse.
There is no reason to suspect the public’s low opinion of those who fostered the collusion fable will soon improve. There's every reason to suspect public sentiment will turn uglier and more bitter in coming years.
There has been a massive decline in cable news viewership since Barr’s announcement. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, for example, dropped to sixth place the day after the attorney general revealed the investigation’s top lines, “down almost 500,000 total viewers from the previous Monday,” according to the Daily Beast. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, whose show has been the network’s second top-rated program in prime time since 2017, saw a similar decline.
[Also read: No Collusion: 10 anonymously sourced Trump-Russia bombshells that look like busts]
It’s still too early to draw a definitive conclusion, but it's reasonable to suspect the sudden drop is because viewers lost confidence in the people who led them to believe for two years that Trump was a treasonous crook and that Mueller would inexorably bring collusion to light.
If hundreds of thousands of viewers are renouncing the opinion and commentary shows that went all-in on collusion, the same has probably happened to newsrooms that pursued the charge with similar zeal. The problem here isn’t about declining subscriptions and revenues, it's that many Americans are emerging from this news debacle with an even deeper distrust for institutions that are supposed to keep them informed of the goings-on of the powerful. This means the powerful can probably now move more freely and with little fear of the disinfecting qualities of the news spotlight. The collusion bust will also lead to more voters treating the reality that enemy powers interfere in our politics as if it were wild fantasy.
But what can you expect when you hype a false story for two years?
Far too many media institutions remain wholly uninterested in making amends. Industry leaders should be seeking forgiveness, and it would probably be the media’s only chance of staving off what journalist Matt Taibbi correctly calls the “death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.” But they aren’t.
“We wrote a lot about Russia, and I have no regrets,” said New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. “It is never our job to determine illegality, but to expose the actions of people in power. And that’s what we and others have done and will continue to do.”
[Opinion: Rep. Devin Nunes: The Russian collusion hoax meets unbelievable end]
The Times claimed in 2017 that Trump campaign officials had “repeated contact with Russian intelligence” officials during the election. Former FBI Director James Comey himself refuted the charge during a congressional hearing, saying the story “was not true.” The newspaper also claimed incorrectly that K.T. McFarland, the former deputy national security adviser, conceded in a private email that Russia swayed the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor. McFarland said no such thing. Rather, she had paraphrased partisan criticisms of the Trump administration as suggesting this. The Times parroted a leftover Clinton campaign talking point throughout 2017, claiming inaccurately that “all 17 intelligence agencies agreed Moscow interfered in the U.S. election to get him elected.” The interference assessment was a conclusion drawn by analysts representing three intelligence agencies acting “under the aegis” of the office of the director of national intelligence, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified on May 8, 2017. The 17 cited by the Times was a holdover from the election, one designed by Clinton’s team to sound more impressive and frightening than saying only three agencies agreed about Russian election-meddling. The Times also reported former national security adviser Michael Flynn said in a tweet that he is “the sole scapegoat for what happened.” Flynn never said that. A parody Twitter account did.
[Opinion: Brennan, Comey, and Clapper, the three stooges of collusion]
Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron said, “The special counsel investigation documented, as we reported, extensive Russian interference in the 2016 election and widespread deceit on the part of certain advisers to the president about Russian contacts and other matters.” He added, “Our job is to bring facts to light. Others make determinations about prosecutable criminal offenses.”
The Post, which shares a Pulitzer Prize with the Times for its collusion coverage, reported falsely in 2016 that Russian operatives hacked the Vermont Burlington Electric Department. The Post also reported that Comey was fired after he requested additional resources for the Russia investigation. Then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, no Trump flunkie, testified in 2017 that the report was fiction. The Post claimed, without evidence, that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “threatened to resign” after a “narrative” emerged that he orchestrated Comey’s firing. Rosenstein himself has denied the allegation, which hinges entirely on the say-so of anonymous sources.
CNN President Jeff Zucker said, in a mind-bogglingly tone-deaf defense of his network, “We are not investigators. We are journalists, and our role is to report the facts as we know them, which is exactly what we did.” This is interesting praise for a network responsible for legendary excesses muddying the Kremlin takeover conspiracy.
In 2017, for example, CNN claimed incorrectly that the Trump campaign received advance notice during the 2016 presidential election of WikiLeaks’ plans to release thousands of hacked emails belonging to Democratic National Committee staffers and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. The bogus “scoop,” which one CNN source described aptly to the Washington Examiner as a “colossal fuck-up,” led to a series of embarrassing on-air corrections. In 2018, former Obama administration official and CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto reported Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of European Command and the NATO supreme allied commander, Europe, said he doesn’t believe there’s an effective U.S. response to Russian cyber threats. But Scaparrotti never said that. CNN also claimed the president’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen was willing to testify that Trump knew in advance of a “June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower in which Russians were expected to offer his campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton.” The report was based entirely on an anonymous source who turned out to be attorney Lanny Davis, who said later the story’s authors had misinterpreted what he had said. The network also claimed incorrectly that Trump’s Russia lawyers made edits to false testimony Cohen gave to Congress in 2017. The article was amended quietly after publication because its most significant claims were untrue. This is to say nothing of the hundreds of hours the network made available to commentators to fantasize wildly about the collusion theory, including when CNN analyst, the retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, accused the president of “treason.”
Such is the pride and bravado of media executives whose newsrooms' slipshod reporting was evidence of a tendentious obsession.
In 2017, then-ABC News correspondent Brian Ross reported incorrectly that Trump directed Flynn to contact the Russians during the 2016 presidential election. BuzzFeed News alleged later in 2018 that Mueller had found that Trump “directed his attorney” to “lie to Congress” about a potential Trump Tower deal in Moscow during the 2016 election. Mueller personally disputed the story, after which BuzzFeed’s editors went into denial, claiming the special counsel’s repudiation of their report didn’t mean it was all bogus. Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal also claimed Mueller had subpoenaed Trump’s bank records. Both newsrooms later walked away from their story.
Despite this and more ample evidence demonstrating journalists behaved atrociously, and despite the fact that the failures only ever pointed in one direction, making plain that they were biases rather than random mistakes, pundits and reporters alike at national newsrooms continue to claim that the news industry has done nothing for which it ought to be ashamed.
Watergate veteran Carl Bernstein, for example, says the media’s coverage of Russian infiltration was “one of the great reporting jobs” in history. Bernstein's judgment may be doubted, however, as he is one of the authors of the CNN “bombshell” that claimed falsely that Cohen would testify that Trump knew in advance of a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russian operatives. The story was false and has been corrected.
CNN’s Brian Stelter boasts that there has “been so much solid reporting about the Trump-Russia mystery,” adding only briefly that “the media ecosystem tends to reward speculation over straight news.”
The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, who served formerly as the Times’ public editor, argued that “serious journalists should be proud of, not bullied over, their Russia reporting.” But collusion coverage has damaged America abroad. Its form and tone, and the fact that it turned out to be wildly wrong, were the boy crying wolf again and again and again. Potemkin collusion has devalued reporting of real crises and real threats. When news media accurately report on some future threat that is real, readers and viewers will deserve sympathy if they shrug in disbelief.
Collusion with Russia was sold to the public from the get-go as a classic tale of Cold War treachery: Kremlin infiltration at the highest levels of the federal government. Trump was literally accused of committing treason, for which news commentators and reporters claimed he would be brought to justice. The most powerful newsrooms in the U.S., leading members of the House and the Senate, and former heads of the FBI and the CIA, including Comey and former CIA Director John Brennan, assured the public repeatedly that there’s almost certainly incontrovertible evidence showing the president is a Kremlin asset and that Mueller would prove it.
The charges were so serious, and newsrooms were so committed to proving them true, that several media groups took unprecedented and extraordinarily unethical steps, including when BuzzFeed News published an absurd, unverified, and bogus 35-page dossier in 2017 purporting to contain details of Trump's compromising financial and sexual proclivities, with which Russia could blackmail him. Yet the biggest revelation from Mueller’s investigation is that it confirmed Trump once cheated on his third wife with a porn star.
The real-life consequences of the media face-plant are already being felt. One is the troubling union between Big Tech and lawmakers to regulate online speech. But there will also likely be irrevocable damage not just to the media’s credibility but also to that of Congress and the intelligence community.
The collective failure of the media to handle the collusion theory with care comes amid historic lows in public trust of the media. A Gallup survey found in 2018 that 40% of adults say they have “very little” faith in newspapers, and 45% say the same of television news. A separate survey that same year found that 69% say “they personally have lost trust in the news media in recent years,” and 30% believe trust in the press cannot be restored. Further, “the press” won first place last December for “hardly any confidence at all” when respondents were asked to rank the trustworthiness of the media, military, law enforcement, universities, the executive branch, the Supreme Court, and Congress, according to a survey commissioned by the Columbia Journalism Review.
These numbers are only going to get worse now that the biggest news cycle in the last two years has ended with a whimper. Collusion coverage amounted to a conclusion in search of evidence.
As a result, a majority of Americans now believe members of the intelligence community are engaged in an effort to overthrow a duly elected president. A growing segment sees mainstream journalism as a partisan, unreliable narrator. Legitimate concerns about foreign operatives meddling in elections are now being treated with a skepticism usually reserved for conspiracy theories. Trump criticizes the news media from a far more legitimate position, and hostile nations benefit from the discord and distrust that this botched news period has nurtured.
The reckoning is here, and we’re all going to suffer for it.
T. Becket Adams is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner, with a focus on media and politics.