NEW YORK — Holding a copy of the New York Times to the camera on Monday, a giddy Steve Doocy of Fox News Channel said the headline about special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings in the Russia investigation “probably killed whoever had to type this.”
Motivated by the typical soul-searching that can accompany the climax of a major story, or simple revenge, the performance of news professionals quickly became an issue following Mueller’s conclusion that he could find no evidence of a conspiracy by President Donald Trump and his campaign team to work with the Russians to influence the 2016 election.
At issue: did some news organizations spend too much time or leap to premature conclusions about Trump’s potential involvement?
“It is the worst journalistic debacle of my lifetime and I’ve been in this business about 50 years,” said Fox analyst and former Washington bureau chief Brit Hume. “I’ve never seen anything quite this bad last this long.”
The National Review criticized CNN and MSNBC for routinely taking stories about the investigation from the Times and Washington Post and blowing them up into major stories. The Review said it would be nice if some people involved in the coverage admitted they were wrong, but isn’t expecting it.
Trump retweeted a “Fox & Friends” segment on Monday titled “Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald J. Trump.”
Even some liberals, like journalist Glenn Greenwald, offered criticism. Money earned by MSNBC hosts “won’t erase the role they played in going on the air every day and manipulating people’s fears and disseminating a false conspiracy theory that rewarded them greatly.”
Reporter Matt Taibbi, who also suggested several reporters and commentators connected too many dots that didn’t add up, wrote that nothing Trump is accused of going forward will be believed by a large segment of the population.
“Imagine how tone-deaf you’d have to be not to realize it makes you look bad, when news does not match audience expectations,” he wrote.
Representatives for CNN and MSNBC declined comment Monday on their coverage.
Defenders cautioned against lumping a diverse media ecosystem all together. If there’s a multi-million dollar investigation into whether a president colluded with a foreign power to influence a national election, is that a story that journalists are supposed to ignore?
Americans would have been far worse off if reporters had not dug into connections between Russians and Trump’s associates, including his sons, wrote Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post. The reporting has not been invalidated by Mueller’s findings, she wrote.
Sullivan is worried that a backlash will cause some news organizations to take the edge off their coverage of the president. They shouldn’t back down, but at the same time should also spend more time on subjects like health care and the economy that Americans care about, she wrote.
It makes no sense to expect the media to not have been aggressive, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“They were covering a process, and the process was providing regular news, including indictments,” she said.
The issue was also clearly on the president’s mind, given how many times he tweeted “no collusion” and sent his lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, on media interviews to talk about.
Each reporter and news organization should take the time to examine coverage, said Tom Bettag, a longtime “Nightline” executive producer and now a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. At the same time, he doesn’t think the press needs to apologize and any individual mistakes couldn’t compare to a system-wide failure in the run-up to the Iraq War.
For the most part, reporters did not know what Mueller was going to come up with and that was reflected in the coverage, Bettag said.
Jamieson, author of “Cyber Wars: How Russian Trolls and Hackers Helped Elect a President,” faults the media for failing to pay enough attention to what Russia actually did in 2016 and pushing politicians to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I don’t know what the press is going to do when it is confronted with hacking again,” she said.