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Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Journalistic authority and the informed identity

Reading this Franklin Foer piece applauding the Mueller report, I'm stuck again by the bizarre way that journalists are summarizing Mueller's (apparently) not recommending charges against Trump for criminal conspiracy.

Foer writes that "In the case of Trump, the corruption doesn’t seem to have transgressed any laws." That is a remarkable statement to present as fact, and I think the implication about the Mueller report is misleading, given what we currently know about it.

This is the same feeling I had with Rosenstein's letter about James Comey, when the mainstream media seemed to spontaneously mount the collective delusion that Rosenstein had recommended Comey be fired, which he did not--and, in fact, seemed to have carefully avoided doing.

Assuming we can trust Barr's direct quotes from the report, it appears that Mueller's team did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that Trump or his campaign "conspired or coordinated" with the Russian effort to intervene in the election. It also appears to conclude that the evidence available to Mueller does not establish that Trump committed any crime.

That's significant, and it shouldn't be downplayed. But it's very, very different from concluding that there exists no evidence that Trump or his campaign coordinated with Russia, or committed crimes doing so. Significantly, Trump did not give live testimony to Mueller's team. Whether that was because Mueller did not want to politicize the inquiry, or didn't want to risk a constitutional crisis from Trump's refusal, or what, I'm not sure.

The president and the campaign also appear to have actively hidden or obfuscated at least some information, probably criminally -- judging from Mueller's various criminal charges. Did Mueller find and resolve all instances of this? It's possible, but almost certainly not.

Anyone who has spent any time observing the criminal justice system knows that the conclusion of a criminal case results in, at best, the prosecutors' best attempt at finding the truth. But most of the time -- perhaps nearly all of the time -- the result is only an approximation.

The whole point of the presumption of innocence in criminal cases is that the burden is NOT on a suspect or defendant to prove innocence. But the corollary is that a suspect or defendant not charged or found guilty cannot claim to have been determined to be innocent.

This is almost laughably obvious and commonly understood, which is why it's so strange the NY Times, The Atlantic and other places have run misleading summaries of it in the case of the Mueller report -- suggesting that Trump has been found to be innocent by the facts.

I wonder if there is a journalistic bias at play here, where journalists prefer presenting themselves as knowing the facts and digesting them for readers, rather than being as much in the dark about the facts as we, and they, actually are.

Which of these headlines do you think the Times prefers its readers to see: "Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy", or "Mueller Gives Up on Determining Trump-Russia Conspiracy"? One is true per what the Times knows, the other false. But more importantly, one appears strong and informative, whole the other appears weak and uninformative, at a glance.

If everyone else is repeating the takeaway that the report exonerates Trump, and the NY Times is more cautious -- even allowing that we trust Barr's summary, the NYT isn't playing the part of the confident, ahead-of-the-story fount of up to date information that readers want.

And ask yourself, if you saw both headlines side by side in two different papers, which would you reach for?

The point is that these moments give us insight into the nature of the news business, which is to serve readers an ongoing story about the publication and about themselves. Each headline, each story must ultimately conform to the story that the NYT makes me an informed person.

The gap between that core focus of the newsroom, and the supposed focus on reporting the most important stories accurately, is usually mostly hidden from us. We don't know all the stories we don't see, which is why most avid readers if the Times couldn't tell you (in one of my favorite examples) that all available evidence suggests that two of Trump's wives have been illegal immigrants, including the First Lady. It's why family separation wasn't a public issue under Obama, though the NYT clearly could have made it one.

When you read the news, remember that you are being sold a story by an organization which holds its own importance and power as more important than the accuracy or relevance of its reporting.

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