Serious reporters should be proud of reporting on Russia probe, not bullied for it

It should be no surprise to anyone that President Donald Trump's reaction to the special counsel Robert Mueller's report is to attack reporters for doing their jobs. That's exactly what he has been doing for years. It's a predictable political strategy − an ugly, undemocratic one − that works as a way to feed raw meat to his base.

And it should be no surprise that his media echo chamber − led by Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity − is calling for the heads of journalists whose work Hannity couldn't begin to emulate even if given 100 years.

As for the rest of the harsh criticism that's being leveled at journalists who dug into the connections between Trump, as candidate and president, and Russia, it's largely misguided.

Fairly typical of this was conservative writer Rich Lowry, who said the three biggest losers from Mueller's report were "the media, the media, the media," which he described as "obsessed and hysterical for 2 years."

There are calls for a "reckoning" on news coverage.

All right, then. Here goes.

I reckon that American citizens would have been far worse off if skilled reporters hadn't dug into the connections between Trump's associates, up to and including his son Don Jr., and Russians. That reporting has not been invalidated.

I reckon that the felonious lying to the public about a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow remains a scandal and that we know about this in large part because journalists were doing their jobs aggressively.

I reckon that the hard-nosed reporting about former national security adviser Michael Flynn, roundly denied, you might recall, before it was proved, was an early sign of the venality that was to follow.

I reckon that reporting by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, CNN, Bloomberg News, the Daily Beast, Mother Jones, ProPublica and others drove forward a national conversation that needed to happen. As Americans saw with their own eyes Trump's bizarre efforts to ingratiate himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that reporting mattered and provided context.

And that shouldn't be forgotten or swept aside now.

And yes, I reckon that endless speculative threads and the explosions of tiny cannons on Twitter were ridiculous and over the top and that the cable pundits who made a living off such speculation aren't really journalists anyway.

It's important to acknowledge the value of the serious journalism because there's a real risk that news organizations will take the edges off their coverage of this subject now. You could see it starting to happen over the weekend. It was strange, for example, to see Scott Pelley's lead-in to CBS's "60 Minutes" erroneously describe the Mueller report's findings in a way that Trump might have scripted: He flatly stated that the report, as described by Attorney General William Barr, exonerated the president. Mueller came to no such conclusion on obstruction of justice, and on the contrary stated clearly that his investigation did not exonerate him.

Perhaps cowed by the criticism, which came from the left as well as the right, most notably from author Matt Taibbi, some news organizations may back down from aggressive coverage of Trump. That would be a serious mistake. With some regrettable and damaging exceptions (individual stories that seemingly went too far) reality-based news outlets have done quite well on this story.

And it's far from over. So this is no time to retreat.

What would be a good idea, though, is to be less obsessed with this subject to the exclusion of others that are far closer to home for most Americans: health care, the economy, affordable housing and crime.

"We've done two listening tours across the U.S. in the past two years, and it was striking how Trump, Russia and Mueller just never came up," HuffPost Editor Lydia Polgreen told me Sunday. As a result, "we haven't invested heavily in covering the Trump/Russia story in terms of enterprise."

Similarly, I've been thinking of Christine Radwan, a Trump voter (and former Democrat) I interviewed in rural New York state in 2017. When I asked her whether possible Russian collusion mattered to her, she paused and then answered thoughtfully: "Yes, it's important, but not as important as our economy and what's happened to our middle class."

This observation is worth thinking about, and acting on.

But that's not to suggest that serious news organizations should drop the Trump/Russia story, which is still playing out. Nor should they allow themselves to be bullied about the important work they've done, and must continue to do.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post's media columnist.

 

 

 

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