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The Mueller report will be delivered to Congress and the public tomorrow. That’s about all we know for sure. Reporters covering the special counsel’s recently wrapped probe don’t know what the document will say. (How much will be redacted? How much of what’s left will be new information?) Nor are they sure of the exact format—so far, all we really have to go on is Attorney General William Barr’s assertion that redactions will be color-coded, and the suggestion, made by anonymous disgruntled Mueller investigators, that some sort of executive summary(ies) exist(s). Uncertainty is nothing new on the Mueller beat. Nonetheless, receiving, digesting, analyzing, and communicating 400 as-yet-mysterious pages—in real time—will pose a steep challenge for the press.
According to Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo, reporters at least have their key questions lined up ahead of time. How accurate was the brief summary that Barr already made public? How, exactly, did Mueller reach the conclusion that he couldn’t reach a conclusion on obstruction? Will the report expose any new sources of information on the president? Quickly finding answers will be a bigger challenge. As Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn puts it, “the tribes of American politics” will also be rushing to find their truth tomorrow. Administration officials and their Democratic opponents in Congress will be vying to stick their preferred narrative in the public consciousness first. On the sidelines, the Mueller-industrial-complex of armchair commentators, academics, and prosecutors-turned-pundits will only add to the noise (some more usefully than others).
In the past week, several astute observers have stressed that journalists should not take shortcuts with the report. The press, Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes write, rushed to the wrong conclusions when Barr delivered his initial summary to Congress last month. The summary was four pages; Mueller’s full report is 100 times longer. To make the most of tomorrow’s “do-over,” Jurecic and Wittes say reporters should embrace the complexity of what the report actually says, and not hype short summaries of prosecutorial judgments and the political reaction to them. “The decision not to prosecute a person for some alleged conduct is not a historical judgment that the conduct didn’t happen,” they write; Congress and the public still get to decide if the facts Mueller lays out about Trump are sufficiently damning as to require further action or reporting. Finding all those facts will take time. “You won’t fully understand what you’re looking at until reading the whole thing a first time,” Marcy Wheeler, a prominent national-security blogger, writes. “So after you read it the first time, read it again.”
In addition to reading everything the report says, it’s crucial that journalists also assess what it doesn’t say. “It is not supposed to be, contrary to many claims, a report on everything that Mueller discovered,” Wheeler writes. It is eminently possible that Mueller did not include all of his findings; those he did include, meanwhile, have been subjected to potentially invasive redactions by the Justice Department. Reporters should not assume the untouched report is comprehensive, but should apply detailed scrutiny to whatever redactions Barr makes, and not take his legalese at face value. As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote recently, Barr—who, lest we forget, has expressed a broad view of executive power on more than one occasion—has significant discretion over what gets left out. He could, hypothetically, have petitioned a court to allow the publication of grand-jury testimony.
While reporters get into the weeds, the outlets they work for have an important counter-responsibility: to keep the findings in perspective. Whatever the report says, it won’t be a satisfying end to the Mueller story. It’s likely to generate “exactly the kind of epistemological confusion this administration generates and coasts on,” as Slate’s Lili Loofbourow puts it; even if it’s damning, “we’ll always want more.” Donald Trump’s policies have a clearer real-world cost: in the past week alone, the ban on transgender troops took effect, Trump vetoed Congressional attempts to halt US support for the war in Yemen, and Barr issued an order that could keep thousands of asylum seekers in jail indefinitely. We shouldn’t let the Mueller report obscure all that.
Below, more on Trump and the impending Mueller report:
- DNA info: The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes that the release of the report will be a minefield for the press. “The DNA of news is to find a coherent story with a single, clear headline,” George Washington University’s Frank Sesno tells Sullivan. “This is a case where the media will have to fight their own DNA.”
- The emperor’s clothes department: Loofbourow’s piece for Slate is worth reading in full. “We fixate on secrets because secrets are how government malpractice has been accounted for in the past,” she writes. But “Trump’s wrongdoing is not private… Even the full unredacted report will probably do little but confirm much that we already know. Dealing with Trump means dealing with that fact—seeking an exposé is kind of a weird response to an emperor with no clothes.”
- Subplots: Need a Mueller refresher ahead of tomorrow’s release? Politico’s Samuelsohn, Josh Gerstein, Cory Bennett, and Kyle Cheney wrap up the “25 subplots to watch in the Mueller investigation.”
- The royal “we”?: Waiting, with the rest of us, is the president, who hasn’t seen the Mueller report either. In the meantime, the Times’s Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman write, “Trump is filling his idle moments—and blowing off any anticipatory steam—by turning to a familiar pastime: television.” Yesterday, Trump weighed in on Fox News’s decision to invite Bernie Sanders for a town hall, alleging that Trump supporters were shut out. In one tweet, Trump appeared to refer to Fox as “we.” Twitter noticed.
Other notable stories:
- Wired’s Nicholas Thompson and Ken Vogelstein are out with a 12,000-word look at “15 months of fresh hell inside Facebook.” Among the nuggets to emerge: some Facebook executives “considered it a small plus that the news industry was feeling a little pain”—from reduced traffic to news content from the platform—“after all its negative coverage.” At NBC News, meanwhile, Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar obtained 4,000 pages of documents from inside the company. The trove exposes Mark Zuckerberg’s moves “to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors by treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip, while publicly proclaiming to be protecting that data.”
- Top officials in the European Union aren’t happy with Facebook, either. As of this week, the platform requires political advertisers on the continent to register in the country where they wish to make an ad buy. The rules, which have already taken effect in the US, bid to limit foreign election interference—but EU leaders say they will hobble legitimate cross-border campaigns ahead of next month’s elections to the European Parliament. Politico’s Laura Kayali and Maïa de La Baume have the details.
- Earlier this week, The Washington Post editorial board opposed a bill—introduced by a local lawmaker in Washington, DC—that would extend existing transparency laws to cover publicly funded charter schools. CJR’s Alexandria Neason takes issue with that stance. “For a journalistic entity—opinion section or otherwise—to advocate against a measure that seeks to increase transparency is backwards,” she writes. “The editorial board’s stance echoes the arguments of charter school operators, instead of supporting a measure that would improve access to information about taxpayer-funded entities.”
- Two updates from the Committee to Protect Journalists: Amid a period of political upheaval, officials in Algeria expelled Aymeric Vincenot, AFP’s Algiers bureau chief, after refusing to renew his press and residency permits. And in Nepal, authorities detained Arjun Giri, editor of Tandav News, under that country’s cybercrime laws after he published an article alleging fraud by a local businessman.
- Vox Media is buying Epic Magazine, the publisher and producer that acts as a pipeline for magazine articles to become films and TV shows. The acquisition will “boost [Vox Media’s] video storytelling capabilities and give it a stronger foothold in Hollywood,” The Hollywood Reporter’s Natalie Jarvey reports.
- In divergent digital-revenue news, The Information, which has a famously high-priced paywall, may experiment with advertising, while HuffPost, which is free, is launching a membership program offering paid content and perks.
- James Murdoch—newly adrift of his family’s business—could further distance himself from his father’s conservative media empire by investing in a liberal news outlet, the Financial Times reports. (Another bet? Comic books, according to The Wall Street Journal.) Meanwhile, in Australia, Robert Thomson, one of Rupert Murdoch’s top lieutenants, slammed The New York Times’s unflattering recent story about the Murdochs, calling it a “rancid hatchet job” driven by “corporate self-interest.”
- Flying British Airways soon? You’ll have to bring your own copy of the FT. The airline has stopped offering the paper to passengers in an apparent backlash against negative coverage. Press Gazette’s James Walker has more.
Yesterday evening, Paris time, Notre-Dame cathedral caught fire. As it burned, photos and video—of billowing smoke; of flames raging in the cross-shaped interior; of the spire leaning slowly, then tumbling away—held global attention. French media were never far from someone weeping. “Pardon me… I am just so shaken,” one caller cried on Radio France. “It’s a treasure, a national treasure that has gone up in flames,” said another, through sobs. The late edition of Le Parisien, echoing the poignant religious symbolism of so much coverage, led with the headline Notre-Dame des larmes: Our lady of tears.
In the US, the story was everywhere. The networks quickly corralled their correspondents (disrupting at least one vacation in the process). As news reporters kept us abreast of firefighters’ battle to save the cathedral’s structure, magazines published more personal reflections. In The New Yorker, Lauren Collins recalled a recent visit to Notre-Dame’s roof, where she had checked in on renovation work. “Tonight,” she wrote, “I realized that we may have been some of the last people to stand there.” For The Atlantic, Rachel Donadio watched amid a crowd as a building that had “survived eight centuries of plague, war, revolution, and the Nazis” started to fall. “Messages come in from friends around the world—‘Are you okay?’—as if this were another terrorist attack, or a death in the family,” she wrote. “In a way, it is a death. In the human family. We are all shocked together.”
In many corners of social media, the atmosphere was funereal. Even people who could see the fire with their own eyes viewed it through their phones. They were “trying to capture in a few pixels what had stood for centuries,” wrote Donadio, who encapsulated the cathedral’s lifespan: “Built in the Gothic era, destroyed in the social-media era.”
Because this is the social-media era, misinformation about the fire spread quickly. BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko rounded up hoaxsters’ claims that Emmanuel Macron/Michelle Obama/“Muslims”/terrorists set the fire deliberately. (While the actual cause has yet to be established, French officials say there’s no evidence of arson, and suspect an accident.) The platforms, once again, attracted criticism. Matt Dornic, an executive at CNN, said Twitter refused to remove a fake CNN account because it had the word “parody” in its bio. (The account was later suspended.) YouTube, for its part, flagged several major outlets’ livestreams of the fire as misinformation, then, for some reason, linked out to explainer content about 9/11.
For the most part, who or what might be to blame seemed a secondary concern. People around the world led with their tributes, their reflections, and their grief. As Michael Kimmelman observed in The New York Times, no one had died. The global reaction, nonetheless, was overwhelming. Was it because Notre-Dame has been such a focal point of Western culture, both religious and secular? Was it something peculiar to Paris, which has always tugged on our heartstrings? Was it the abundance of shocking visuals, served to us everywhere we looked? Did we see a metaphor—in our troubled times—for lost permanence, lost steadfastness, lost beauty? What, exactly, did it stir in us? Admittedly, it’s easier to pose questions than answers.
Whatever the reason, an angry world and much of its media stopped, for a few hours, at least, to watch a tragedy and to try to process it. We weren’t silent—far from it. But the tenor of the coverage was a break from the incessant thunder to which we have become accustomed. Briefly, something old and beautiful commanded our attention, and our contemplation.
Below, more on Notre-Dame:
- The latest: According to French authorities, the structure of the cathedral is still “sound” and major paintings from inside have survived largely intact. Last night, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, vowed that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt, and promised that a national fund would be launched today for that purpose. (Hundreds of millions of euros have already been pledged). For the latest updates, follow The Guardian, in English, or Le Monde, in French.
- View from the inside: Philippe Wojazer, a photographer with Reuters, was one of the first journalists to get images from inside the burned cathedral. He shared his striking photos on Instagram.
- “An impromptu memorial service”: Vanity Fair’s Erin Vanderhoof writes that Twitter was both a breaking-news resource and an “impromptu memorial service” yesterday. “In the face of an unfathomable, historic loss, Twitter became a place to mourn, to squabble about the right way to mourn, and to then hit ‘play’ on the video of the spire collapsing and mourn again.”
- “A different kind of catastrophe”: For the Times, Kimmelman reflects on the symbolism of Notre-Dame and the fire. “This fire is not like other recent calamities,” he writes. “Notre-Dame, where no one died, represents a different kind of catastrophe, no less traumatic but more to do with beauty and spirit and symbolism.”
Other notable stories:
- The 2019 Pulitzer Prizes were awarded yesterday. It was a big day for local outlets: the South Florida Sun Sentinel won the coveted public service prize for its reporting on the Parkland school shooting, while the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was honored in the breaking news category for its coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. (As CJR’s Andrew McCormick wrote, the awards reflected a violent year for journalists.) The LA Times and Baton Rouge Advocate also picked up prizes, as did The New York Times and Wall Street Journal for deep investigations into Trumpworld, and Reuters, whose journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were honored for the reporting that put them in jail in Myanmar. The full list of winners is here.
- The Justice Department confirmed that the Mueller report will be delivered to Congress and the public on Thursday—once lawyers have finished redacting it. (We were originally promised it by today.) “This release comes right before Easter and Passover, and coincides with one of the longest recesses on Capitol Hill,” Politico’s Playbook team noted. “No matter what the report says, that DC will be empty is a bit of a boon to the president and his team.” Also for Politico, Darren Samuelsohn previews the tactics different readers might use to digest the report, which runs to nearly 400 pages.
- Over the weekend, Twitter took down several tweets linking to a news article about pirated content. The TV network Starz had complained that the article included screenshots of copyrighted material and “information about [its] illegal availability.” Given “fair use” provisions in US copyright law, the complaint looked like overreach. CJR’s Mathew Ingram was among those whose tweets were targeted. “Twitter seems to act incredibly quickly whenever there is a copyright claim, but it is considerably more circumspect in responding to complaints about offensive or harassing speech,” he writes.
- Bernie Sanders went on Fox News last night, sparring with hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum during a town-hall event in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Politico’s Holly Otterbein writes that Sanders “emerged triumphant” from the broadcast. “In the days preceding the event, Sanders faced backlash from liberals who said he shouldn’t participate… But when it was over, Sanders had received an hour of positive exposure on the highest-rated cable channel—something none of his primary rivals have yet risked.”
- In February, Vice launched Vice Live, a flagship new nightly news show. According to The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani, the program has already been canceled. (The company said it would be “breaking out” some of the show’s “most popular talent and formats.”) During its brief run, Vice Live struggled for ratings and with offscreen tensions.
- Editorial staff at Quartz are unionizing with the NewsGuild of New York. In a statement, the Quartz Union said Uzabase—which bought Quartz from Atlantic Media last year—“seems committed to our core goals,” but that “their plans for Quartz’s editorial operation remain unclear, and with layoffs taking place in droves across the industry, our future feels uncertain.” For our Spring/Summer 2018 print issue, Anna Heyward assessed the wave of unionization efforts sweeping digital newsrooms.
- For CJR, Igor Bosilkovski checks in with Mirko Ceselkoski, the “Macedonian fake news strategist” whose former students attracted international attention when they churned out junk content ahead of the US presidential election in 2016. “For now, Ceselkoski says that the majority of his business comes not from politicians, but from his work with US trucking companies… ‘There are no surprises here, everything is legal.’”
- In an essay for ABC News, Elizabeth Thomas, a graduate journalism student at Georgetown University, reflects on going to study at the institution that enslaved two of her ancestors. Recently, students at Georgetown voted to start a fund for descendants of the university’s slaves, to be paid for by a slight increase in tuition. The university has yet to approve the measure.
- And James Murdoch, son of Rupert, maxed out his campaign donation to Pete Buttigieg, whose longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination has gathered momentum in recent weeks. Despite the hardened conservative politics of much of his family’s news empire, James Murdoch describes himself as a centrist.