How the media's distorted judgment kept hyping the Mueller probe

The mainstream media were so heavily invested in the Robert Mueller investigation, and its potential to prematurely end the Trump presidency, that their news judgment was badly distorted.

There is simply no other conclusion after two years of saturation coverage, sometimes overhyped and overwrought, of a probe that wound up producing no criminal charges on the core issue of collusion with Russia, or on obstruction of justice by the president, his top aides, and his family.

Sure, there are plenty of caveats: We haven't seen the report, which finds no criminal act by the president but "also does not exonerate him," and the final decision was made by Trump's attorney general. It's also true that for all the attacks on Mueller and his team by the president and his advocates, the former FBI director did his job quietly and without grandstanding in declining to bring charges.

But the denouement is one hell of a black eye for the press.

ROBERT MUELLER'S RUSSIA INVESTIGATION BY THE NUMBERS

I have made the argument for two years, on the air and in my book, that the media have overhyped the investigation. And when you take that stance, some journalists rush to dismiss you as a Trump partisan, though I've been committed to covering both sides when it comes to this White House.

The fact that Mueller is bringing no further indictments does not mean the probe, which led to 37 indictments, was a witch hunt. Nor does it mean that many of the investigative stories about the process are now invalidated as some kind of fake news. Public officials can engage in questionable conduct that doesn't rise to the level of indictable offenses.

That doesn't excuse the fact that major news organizations made numerous high-profile mistakes in pursuing the case, sometimes resulting in the suspension or departure of the journalists involved.

The relentless nature of the coverage, its overwhelmingly negative tone, and nonstop analysis and commentary that Trump was in deep trouble, too often reflected wishful thinking and outright bias.

The RNC, a partisan source to be sure, says The New York Times, Washington Post and the CNN and MSNBC websites have published 8,507 articles mentioning the Mueller investigation.

All this should prompt some soul-searching and reevaluation by a profession that mainly botched the 2016 election and at times seemed determined to prove that voters made the wrong choice. But for the most part, given the defensive and insular nature of journalism, that’s unlikely.

Here’s what some critics on the left and right are saying.

Glenn Greenwald, the uber-liberal reporter and commentator at the Intercept, says: "Check every MSNBC personality, CNN law 'expert,' liberal-centrist outlets and #Resistance scam artist and see if you see even an iota of self-reflection, humility or admission of massive error ...

"While standard liberal outlets obediently said whatever they were told by the CIA & FBI, many reporters at right-wing media outlets which are routinely mocked by super-smart liberals as primitive & propagandistic did relentlessly great digging & reporting."

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, another liberal writer, says Russiagate is this generation’s WMD, calling the Mueller findings "a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media ... Nothing Trump is accused of from now on by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population."

Liberal law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has often defended Trump in the investigation, said on Fox that it was "a good day for the president" and a "very, very bad day for CNN." He said "they should be hanging their head in shame when you think about how many people went out on a limb and predicted there would be indictments for obstruction, there would be indictments for collusion, there would be indictments for this and for that."

On the other side, Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at the Federalist, said in a heated "Media Buzz" debate with Philippe Reines that the media "rolled right into an absolutely deranged conspiracy territory that held the country hostage for two years ...  It is shocking how many people believed this crazy theory about Russia collusion, but many people lacked the courage to speak against it in the face of hysteria."

But New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told The Washington Post: "I'm comfortable with our coverage. 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."

Many media outlets, while noting that Trump still faces other probes in New York and on the Hill, played it straight in reporting the findings.

The Times: "For President Trump, it may have been the best day of his tenure so far. The darkest, most ominous cloud hanging over his presidency was all but lifted on Sunday with the release of the special counsel's conclusions, which undercut the threat of impeachment and provided him with a powerful boost for the final 22 months of his term."

A couple of fierce Trump critics did not try to spin or soften the findings.

Joe Scarborough said on "Morning Joe" that "if the appointment of Robert Mueller was the worst day of his presidency, the release of Robert Mueller's report was the best day of his presidency." He said it was good news for the country to know that Trump did not collude with Vladimir Putin.

And MSNBC host Ari Melber said, "Just as so many people called on Congressional Republicans to stand up on principles, this tonight and the days ahead are certainly a time for Congressional Democrats to stand up too and acknowledge Bob Mueller did not find a chargeable election conspiracy."

As for the president, he could have responded with a long-national-nightmare-is-over tone, but that's not him. Instead, while claiming total exoneration, he lashed out at "an illegal takedown that failed," and added, "hopefully, somebody is going to be looking at the other side."

But it wasn't illegal, despite the disputed circumstances that prompted the probe, in that Trump's own deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, appointed Mueller as special counsel. And for those who believe that William Barr, who previously served as attorney general for George H.W. Bush, is politically biased, it is Rosenstein, portrayed by the press as standing up to Trump, who joined in the decision not to prosecute on obstruction allegations. (Mueller would have made the call himself under the independent counsel law, but since both parties happily let it expire, he decided as part of DOJ to defer the decision to his bosses.)

On "Today," Savannah Guthrie asked if Trump owed Mueller an apology, since "the president has absolutely eviscerated Bob Mueller, a lifelong public servant, a former Marine, a registered Republican. He’s called him a national disgrace, discredited, a prosecutor gone rogue who oversaw a gang of thugs."

Sanders' response: "I think Democrats and the liberal media owe the president and they owe the American people an apology."

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And Kellyanne Conway said on Fox that Democratic congressman Adam Schiff should resign over statements he made throughout the investigation.

So rather than moving on from the Mueller investigation, Trump and his inner circle seem determined to run against it, and the press, as part of his reelection campaign. Whether that proves a successful tactic or not, the media's excesses over the last two years are providing him with a substantial target.