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What We Talk About When We Talk About “the Media”

Trump. Russia. Mueller. Collusion. Exoneration. Anxiety. We’ve been fed a steady stream for months. What did we really learn, and from whom did we learn it?

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“The media” is having a rough week. “The media” is having a rough year. For three years, in fact, “the media” has played the scapegoat in Donald Trump’s campaign, Donald Trump’s presidency, and all post-Trump phenomena.

“The media” is currently recovering from its biggest blunder to date—Russiagate. On Friday, Robert Mueller submitted his final report to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who summarized Mueller’s report in a public four-page letter addressed to Congress. In his letter, Barr relates Mueller’s ambivalence about the many “obstruction-of-justice concerns” related to Trump while nonetheless concluding that the president did not, in fact, coordinate with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign. Russia did, according to Mueller, manipulate the election, and Trump’s associates did commit many serious crimes, but Trump did not personally coordinate his presidential campaign with Russian officials. “The report does not recommend any further indictments, nor did the Special Counsel obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public,” Barr writes. Throughout the past weekend, Barr’s letter produced a historic, if inconclusive, anticlimax. Trump appointed Barr with a keen and explicit interest in undermining Mueller’s investigation. Of course, Trump’s critics insist on reading Mueller’s report, in full, for themselves.

The anticlimax follows the admittedly lofty expectation—cultivated, in large part, by “the media”—that Mueller’s investigation might culminate with Trump’s impeachment, maybe even his arrest. “The media” eagerly theorized about Mueller indicting a sitting president. “The media” didn’t just cover the Mueller investigation. “The media” hyped Russiagate as the century’s great constitutional crisis, elevating Mueller to Beyoncé’s status and billing the special counsel’s investigation as a 21st-century gold rush. “The media” spent two years scandalizing Hillary Clinton’s email security in her term as Barack Obama’s secretary of state; and then, as an overcorrection, “the media” spent two years peddling innuendo about Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. But Russiagate has been a far more whimsical adventure than the Clinton email scandal. Mueller’s team rarely addressed the news media; they spoke only through indictments and court proceedings. So news media—and social media—democratized “expertise” about the Mueller investigation to include strange Twitter figures with inscrutable connections to the news industry and the legal professions. Russiagate was a free-for-all: You, too, could serve as one of Mueller’s many, unofficial deputies in the press. (Alternatively, left-wing Russiagate skeptics, such as Matt Taibbi, serve Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.) For two years, “the media” assembled a cottage industry for Russiagate obsessives, all of them churning out plotlines with tenuous relationships to unpublished facts and trivia.

Ultimately, Trump didn’t win against Mueller so much as “the media” lost, once again, to Trumpism. Until Friday, “the media” resisted blame and shame for the orgasmic deification of Robert Mueller. There are left-wing skeptics who oppose Trump but otherwise resent Trump’s critics for investing so many resources and so much faith in a Republican cop. The left-wing skepticism was hardly about Mueller and his investigation so much as it was about the unlikely political ends which Mueller might ideally serve. “The media” promised hellfire and indictments. “The media” overstated Mueller’s report before Mueller had written a single word.

“The media” has lost every major conflict in Trump’s political career. “The media” loses by design. Trump picks fights with “fake news” networks in his frequent, egomaniacal bouts. Trump’s fellow conservatives rant about how “the media” covered Nick Sandmann and Jussie Smollett in the earliest hours of their respective controversies, even though “the media,” in both cases, didn’t refer to any news journalism so much as a couple of sound bites and countless tweets. The losing streak now also accounts for “the media” blaming “the media” for once against face-planting at Trump’s feet.

In truth, “the media” is a great variety of journalists, at various levels of professionalism, prioritizing a great variety of principles, conventions, and styles. For “the media,” coverage of Russiagate was a clusterfuck where all these principles, conventions, and styles collided. The argument against “the media” is, in this case, an argument against cable news, a medium which devolved into 24/7 fanaticism about Russiagate minutiae while contributing little, if anything, to any sensible comprehension of current affairs. Fox News is the president’s propaganda network, specifically; but cable news in general, including Fox and MSNBC, is a civic blight. Cable news is, historically, a format without merit or righteous milestones, and Russiagate obsessives are all worse informed for having watched the wall-to-wall coverage. Reporters informed readers; pundits misled them. Crucially, these pundits conflated their interest in Mueller’s investigation, and their hyperactive imaginations about the Mueller investigation, with the Mueller investigation itself. Jonathan Chait authored a fantastical New York magazine cover story about Trump, Putin, Russia, etc., and he has—to this day—gone so far as to suggest that criticism of his obsession is, essentially, criticism of Mueller. Clearly, “the media” identifies so strongly with Mueller that “the media” has taken major credit for, and profit from, his investigation.

“The media”—sorry, the pundits—were in too deep. There were exceptions. They were few. There was FiveThirtyEight’s Politics Podcast, which dedicated many “emergency” episodes to covering Russiagate developments that would, mercifully, feature commentary from Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, a legal correspondent who would consistently address the latest Russiagate developments primarily in terms of uncertainty. Here’s what we don’t know, here’s what we’ll ideally learn as Mueller shares his findings. It was a different temperature of analysis, and it honored the reality of covering federal investigators who simply did not speak or leak to the press. It was modest. It was informative. It was uncommon.

It was by no means the Russiagate norm, and “the media” has already begun to obscure the loudest, wrongest channels, such as #Resistance Twitter, such as cable news, such as the columnist spaces, now flattened into a single, unaccountable term and summarized as a racket. “The media is a big place,” Chait writes this week, “and obviously plenty of cable news commentators and Twitter personalities have made bad predictions about the Russia scandal.” This is duck-duck-goose. Suddenly, “the media” is someone else; some distant fool unrelated to any journalists in good standing. “The media” is a shelled and evacuated bunker, hiding nothing but nuance. We have only the media to blame.