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Mueller's findings are fresh fuel for the never-ending information wars

Posted April 19, 2019 2:14 a.m. EDT

— A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Mueller and the information wars

You would have been foolish to think that the Mueller report would unify the country around a common set of facts. That's not how things work in 2019. As the information wars rage, reality is determined by what channel you watch, what websites you visit, what feeds you follow. Each news cycle moves Americans further and further apart. And Thursday was, really, no different.

Over in one world, established news organizations reported the news. 1) The Mueller report detailed the Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, but did not establish a criminal conspiracy, and 2.) That Trump repeatedly attempted to curtail the investigation. Journalists also pointed out that the Mueller report corroborated much of the reporting that's been done for the last two years.

But over in the other world, the one dominated by pro-Trump, right-wing media personalities, a completely different narrative unfolded. Commentators exclaimed "NO COLLUSION" while willfully drowning out the other findings of the report. The focus was on revenge. This universe also favored the demeaning of journalists, asserting the report had forever tarnished the reputation of the press. One of the chyrons on Laura Ingraham's show blared, "MUELLER REPORT EXPOSES LIBERAL MEDIA ALLIES." Another asked, "WHERE IS THE LEFT'S APOLOGY TO FOX NEWS?" Much of Fox's prime time coverage was about the media "melting down." This isn't true, but tens of millions of people believe it.

The point: Just one Mueller report was released on Thursday, but what it said really depended on which media ecosystem it was digested in. If you're only reading/watching one of the two worlds, you're blind to what's unfolding...

Thursday in ten quotes

Brian Williams: "First and foremost, we urge everyone to read the report."

David Muir: The report is "far more damning to the president than the Attorney General initially indicated."

Andrew Napolitano: "He's out of legal jeopardy, but he's certainly not out of political jeopardy..."

Kellyanne Conway: "The best day since he got elected."

George Conway: "Trump is a cancer on the presidency. Congress should remove him."

Rachel Maddow: Volume two of the report is a "road map for how to charge this president with multiple felony counts of obstruction of justice."

Yoni Appelbaum, who wrote The Atlantic's "IMPEACH" cover story earlier this year: "There is sufficient evidence that President Donald Trump obstructed justice to merit impeachment hearings."

Nicole Hemmer: "As a presidential scholar who works in the Nixon White House tapes: At this point, the only reason Trump isn't Nixon circa late-1973 is Congress and conservative media."

Ari Melber: "What are Americans supposed to take from this?"

Don Lemon: "Just read the report."

The bottom line

This Katelyn Polantz story was the lead on CNN.com overnight. She wrote: "If Robert Mueller wanted to charge President Donald Trump with obstruction, he found all he needed to do it. And he found it on multiple fronts. But he didn't make a decision on whether to bring the case." Read on...

Carter: "It's the biggest challenge our free media has ever faced"

I asked Bill Carter, who's been on the media beat for decades, for his impressions of Thursday's news and how newsrooms should handle the days to come. He wrote: "What's going to happen in the next days and weeks will go far past gaslighting and reach outright arson. The Administration is trying to rewrite history and burn down the rule of law, and the media -- the non-Trump media -- may be the only force to counter the ultimate fake news story: That somehow a report that details shockingly corrupt activity by a President sworn to defend our Constitution and uphold our laws is actually a statement of exoneration."

Carter continued: "The media has already been used and abused by an Attorney General determined to establish a false narrative... So it's essential that the media refuse to let go of the tail of the real narrative: the truth about what the Russians did, what the Trump campaign did to embrace what the Russians did, and what Trump did to try to cover all that up. That means not allowing the intimidation effort to come, nor the inevitable distractions of some new Trumpian outrages, nor the lure of conventional reporting about a new presidential campaign, to reduce the magnitude of this scandal. The drumbeat will come as 'old news; that's all settled; this is media sour grapes for getting it all wrong; it's presidential harassment!' It's not. It's the biggest challenge our free media has ever faced. Keep ringing the bell of truth or watch it get cracked, and maybe never repaired."

Questions for Friday and beyond

-- The president has no public events scheduled on Friday. Will we see him on camera?

-- When will we hear Robert Mueller's voice?

-- Trumpworld and Foxland are pushing the "investigate the investigators" line very hard. What will come of this?

Does Sarah Sanders have any credibility left?

Well, "not founded on anything" is the new "alternative facts." Mueller's report confirms that Sarah Sanders simply made it up when she said that "countless" FBI agents had told her that they were thankful Trump had fired James Comey.

Sanders made similar claims multiple times on two different days. It was "not founded on anything," per the report. Yet she says it was merely a "slip of the tongue." Now some prominent journalists are questioning whether she should remain in her job. April Ryan said on "Erin Burnett OutFront" that "she should be fired, end of story."

Would be nice to have a briefing right about now...

Back in May 2017, when Sanders made those false statements, briefings were still near-daily sessions. Now, briefings are almost non-existent. There have only been two briefings so far this year, and the last one took place 38 days ago. But "if she ever holds another briefing, she should be grilled on that," WaPo's Aaron Blake tweeted. Sanders declined to answer my Q's on Thursday night. Here's my full story...

FOR THE RECORD, PART ONE

-- Vox's Dara Lind: "7 times the Mueller report caught Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders lying to press..." (Vox)

-- CJR's Kyle Pope: Mueller could "finally be the turn that convinces a surprisingly credulous White House press corps—credulous in spite of everything we've seen—that Trump's words have lost their value, that his history, now enshrined in Mueller, of lying to and about the press to further his interests and save his presidency should now be reflected in everything we say about him..." (CJR)

-- NYT's Michael Grynbaum chronicled how TV journalists unpacked the Mueller report in real time... (NYT)

-- Politico's Andrew Restuccia noted that the Mueller report "shatters" repeated claims from Trump aides that there was not turmoil in the White House... (Politico)

-- Important not to overlook this: "Mueller discovered new ways Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election..." (CNN)

Two "Mueller Report" books are in the top 10

Right now the Skylark version of "The Mueller Report" is No. 3 on Amazon's best selling books chart, while the Washington Post's version is No. 8. Both are showing an April 30 publication date. There's a third version I didn't know about, from Melville House, that's No. 42 on Amazon...

CNN's all-nighter

CNN is staying live all night and into the morning. Poppy Harlow picked up after Don Lemon signed off at midnight ET... I'll be joining Harlow during the 1 a.m. hour... "Early Start" with Christine Romans and Dave Briggs will start extra-early... And so will "New Day," with Chris Cuomo joining Alisyn Camerota for old times' sake...

What Mueller did: He confirmed a whole lot of real reporting

We heard it time after time again when a news organization published an explosive report about the Russia probe: Trump, or one of his spokespeople, would declare it to be "fake news." But on Thursday, Mueller's report confirmed that many of the stories Trump attempted to discredit were actually spot on. As Tom Kludt wrote in his article, several bombshell reports were corroborated with the release of the partially redacted report. Read all about it here...

→ More: Paul Farhi wrote in WaPo, "The fake news seems to have flowed not from the media but from the other direction." Farhi noted that the Mueller report cited "multiple instances in which Trump and White House aides misled or lied to journalists or in public statements as the investigation was unfolding."

Did the press inadvertently help Trump?

Did the dogged reporting by the press over the last two years actually inadvertently help Trump? That's a question worth asking. As Maggie Haberman wrote in a tweet, "For all of the efforts by POTUS and some of his advisors/aides to undermine or discredit the real-time reporting from multiple outlets, the political reality is it helped take away a lot of the shock value for the public, which has heard much of what's in the report before."

Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman elaborated further in a story. They stated, "If the American public or members of Congress were learning these things for the first time, the political fallout would normally be devastating."

But the reality is, the public had already known much of the contents of the Mueller report because of relentless reporting from journalists at NYT, WaPo, CNN, AP, and other news organizations. As a result, when the Mueller report was released on Thursday, it's hard to imagine anyone was truly surprised. Sure, the report contained some new information. But the picture it painted of Trump had already been illustrated to the public by the news media, removing the shock value, and effectively helping Trump survive the storm.

But over on Fox...

I've been tuned into Fox News much of the night, and the programming sounds no different than it did yesterday, last week, last month, or quite frankly, last year. Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham are doing what they always do: criticizing the Mueller probe, while launching broadsides on journalists.

If you listened to any one of these hosts, you would not know that the Mueller report validated many of the things reported about Trump and his White House over the past two years. Instead, you'd think major networks and newspapers deliberately misled the American public -- which, of course, did not occur...

One piece of hypocrisy...

Immediately after Barr concluded his press conference, journalists and pundits on the various news networks noted that the attorney general appeared to be spinning things in favor of Trump. It was no different over at Fox News. Chris Wallace bluntly said, "The attorney general seemed almost to be acting as the counselor for the defense, or the counselor for the president, rather than the attorney general."

Wallace was right. What he said was not crazy. But all day I've watched as Fox News opinion personalities have used clips of journalists/pundits from the other networks saying effectively the same thing Wallace did to demonstrate supposed media malpractice. That trend continued, of course, into Fox News' prime time programming.

The Fox opinion personalities, however, predictably keep leaving out the fact that one of the main faces of their own network used the same effective rhetoric. It's not surprising. There is a precedent. (Recall, for instance, when Fox News personalities slammed journalists for supposed fawning over Kim Jong Un, when their own journalists had used much of the same rhetoric.) But it is revealing. The only thing stopping Fox News opinion personalities from calling the network's own journalists biased hacks is the fact that they share the same employer -- not the work they produce.

Guess which channel Trump wants you to watch...

The president started his Twitter day by urging his followers to watch Barr's presser on Fox News and OANN. As I wrote here, he wanted to steer people toward his pre-approved channels.

In the evening, Trump tweeted an even more explicit Fox promo: "It was a really great day for America! A special evening tonight on @TuckerCarlson, @seanhannity & @IngrahamAngle Will be very interesting!" For some reason, he deleted it a little while later. But he still live-tweeted some of Fox's shows...

BuzzFeed's follow up...

Mueller's report did not back up BuzzFeed's anonymously-sourced report about Trump directing Michael Cohen to lie. EIC Ben Smith wrote a note to readers with new info about the site's reporting on Thursday night. Smith: "The facts of Cohen's lies and his interactions with Trump are, largely, now settled. Our sources — federal law enforcement officials — interpreted the evidence Cohen presented as meaning that the president 'directed' Cohen to lie. We now know that Mueller did not." Smith stopped short of expressing any regret for the story...

FOR THE RECORD, PART TWO

-- Susan Glasser: "The Mueller Report Won't End Trump's Presidency, But It Sure Makes Him Look Bad..." (New Yorker)

-- Wired's Garrett Graff writes that the Mueller report was "much worse for Trump than Barr let on..." (Wired)

-- CNN's Katelyn Polantz explains, "If Robert Mueller wanted to charge President Donald Trump with obstruction, he found all he needed to do it..." (CNN)

-- Read more of Thursday's "Reliable Sources" newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...

-- The WSJ's editorial board is out with its take, titled, "Obstruction of Nothing." The editorial board writes that "Mueller vindicates Trump on collusion and plays Hamlet on obstruction..." (WSJ)

-- David French writes that the Mueller report "should shock our conscience." He said, "I must confess that even as a longtime, quite open critic of Donald Trump, even I was surprised at the sheer scope, scale, and brazenness of the lies, falsehoods, and misdirections..." (National Review)

HBO to Trump: Stop using our intellectual property "for political purposes"

Trump seems to like making "Game of Thrones" references. On Thursday, after Barr's press briefing, the president tweeted a graphic that used the HBO series' font and imagery to say "NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION" and "GAME OVER."

Soon after, HBO released a statement. "Though we can understand the enthusiasm for Game of Thrones now that the final season has arrived, we still prefer our intellectual property not be used for political purposes," the network said.