I well understand how difficult traditional news reporting is in the current times. I have just starting reading Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism & Why It Matters Now to get the perspective of Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian during the most tumultuous period of digital disruption beginning in the late 1990s.
One consequence of the shift to electronic news distribution seems to have been a marked decline in the quality of the writing, reflecting in many cases a decline in the underlying thinking involved in learning, writing about and disseminating the “news.” It may be that the real cause of this change is the speed with which digital news output must be delivered in order to compete and be relevant in a landscape where there are literally dozens of outlets immediately available with versions, true or otherwise, of any given story. Another factor likely is that some stories are reported before they are “ripe,” in the sense that there has not been time enough to verify everything and the media entities figure they’ll just update the story when more information becomes available. Sometimes, the update never happens because everyone involved has moved on to other “breaking” stories. Everything is always “breaking” in this environment. “Breaking News” has become one of the most used and least meaningful headlines ever conceived. When every story is “breaking,” nothing is “breaking.”
Often the errors are subtle but still very important, particularly if they lend credence to versions of truth that are, in reality, questionable or outright false. A case in point, that inspired this post and is but one of many instances I’ve seen, is a recent article in Newsweek, https://bit.ly/2OP3KTY, entitled “Poll: More Than Half of Americans Say They Definitely Won’t Vote for Donald Trump in 2020 Despite Mueller Findings,” authored by Alexandra Hutzler on 3/28/19. I want to emphasize here that I am not picking on her; she is not alone in making the terrible mistake I am about to describe. Her article caught my attention because it seemed to contain some good news in the midst of what looked like, for a while, the Mueller debacle.
The thrust of the piece is that “fifty-three percent of voters say they will “definitely will not” cast their ballot for Trump in the 2020 election if he is the Republican Party’s nominee, according to a new poll by Quinnipiac University.” Fine; that’s great news from where I sit, though one would hope that by now the percentage of people who see through the criminal façade of the Trump administration would be must higher.
In any case, the article includes these lines:
“Despite special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding that there was no collusion between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, more than half of Americans say they definitely won’t be voting for the president in 2020 …. While the dark cloud of the Mueller investigation has been lifted from Trump’s presidency, the Quinnipiac survey showed that his Democratic rivals are gaining popularity in the 2020 race.” [emphasis added]
It is a fact that there is no evidence that Mueller made a finding of “no collusion” other than the “summary” declaration by the recently appointed Trump appointee Attorney General Barr who auditioned for the job through a gratuitous memo asserting, in essence, the total immunity of the president from accountability while in office and perhaps thereafter as well. No one other than Mueller and his team and various people in the Justice Department have seen the actual Mueller report. [I am assuming here that copies have not been surreptitiously provided to the White House, a proposition in which I have only limited confidence.]
Furthermore, we now have reports from inside the Mueller team expressing deep concern about the extent to which AG Barr has gamed the situation with overly generous (to Trump) interpretations of what the Mueller report actually says. There is simply no basis in reality for the media to take Barr’s version of the Mueller report as definitive or even reliable to any degree. To have done otherwise is at best sloppy journalism and at worst a form of pandering that raises serious questions about the trustworthiness of a news “institution” like Newsweek.
Perhaps Ms. Hutzler can be forgiven for a “rookie mistake,” as she graduated from college and was hired by Newsweek only last year. I’m happy to assume that with respect to her, but not with respect to the editors at Newsweek. This is one of the reasons for having editors, to ferret out implicit bias in stories. This mistake was not particularly subtle and, in the context of the immediate controversy surrounding the Barr gambit, it should have been caught and fixed before publication.
I emphasize again that this incident is just one of many that I have observed in reading the “news” about the Mueller report and the Barr flim-flam. Trump is, of course, delighted to see stories like this that support the “complete exoneration” theme he has been so desperate to reach for the past two years. But there is no exoneration, just more questions. All the more so as the Mueller investigators are now talking about the Barr maneuver. The least the mainstream media can do is avoid supporting a grossly false narrative until the evidence is in. This issue will be crucially important in the run-up to the 2020 reckoning when, it seems certain, there are going to be issues of further foreign interference, voter suppression and false claims of a “rigged election if I lose” by Trump.