The Sunday Magazine

Post-Mueller, 2020 campaign coverage could reach a new low — but it doesn't have to

Reporters spent countless news cycles fixated on the Mueller report, to their detriment, says media critic Jay Rosen. As the U.S. heads into another presidential campaign, he shares his recipe for improving political coverage going forward.
Special counsel Robert Mueller closed his long and contentious Russia investigation with no new charges. For some journalists, that's a tough pill to swallow. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

The results of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia have put many journalists in the U.S. in a difficult position. 

Last Sunday, it was revealed that Mueller's office had insufficient evidence to establish that U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign conspired with the Russians in the 2016 election.

For reporters who had spent countless news cycles fixating on the report and its potential consequences for Trump, the findings prompted indignation, disbelief, and queasy bouts of self-reflection.

Jay Rosen, a media critic and journalism professor at New York University, spoke with Sunday Edition host Michael Enright about where journalists went astray in their Mueller coverage — and how they can improve.  

Here is part of their conversation.

Michael Enright: What did the media get wrong and what did journalists get right in all of this?

Jay Rosen: Well, in the coverage that I saw ... the phrase, 'We'll have to wait for Mueller's report' was something that was constant. So I think in not getting ahead of where Mueller was, the press did a pretty good job. Another element was the journalists themselves investigated what Mueller was investigating, and dug up some important information. So I would give them high grades for that.

Where I think the coverage was a problem was the simple volume of it, and the fact that every day it was a story on cable news whether there was new developments or not. When you have something like that repeated literally every day, expectations grow naturally from that, even if you're trying to be cautious in your coverage. The overplaying of the story to the exclusion of all other stories was not such a good deal.

But I think we have to keep in mind here that this is an extremely important story for democracy: the interference in its elections. And this is the part that gets left out — the president and his people were constantly lying about the story. That also was a very serious thing for a modern democracy. When you put those things together, you get the kind of circus that we had when the when the report was finished.

ME: The journalist Matt Taibbi has argued that Russiagate is this generation's [equivalent to] weapons of mass destruction. Is he correct in that?

JR: I read Matt's piece. I disagree with him. In the case of the Iraq war, there ultimately was no WMD, right? Those weapons didn't exist. You can't say that Russian interference in the American election turns out not to have existed. It happened. You can't say that Trump never misled us about having business in Russia. That happened. And so even though he was not indicted and there were extremes that people speculated upon that never happened, it's just not the case that in the Russia investigation no weapons were ever found. Lots of things were found.

ME: There was some very good reporting done. But when it got into cable news… was it difficult to distinguish between, say, MSNBC and Fox News in its coverage?

JR: I think one of the strange things about commercially-driven cable news is that after a while it becomes a sort of machine for measuring the demand for a subject. It's clear that for MSNBC, for example, but also for CNN, there was just a lot of listener and viewer demand for this story, whether or not there was something new in the story. And I think allowing audience demand to overcome actual news values news judgment is a sin for which cable news is guilty every night. That certainly had an effect over time.

ME: There was a piece in Vanity Fair about MSNBC, and the writer Joe Pompeo talked to a staffer who said, 'There was no market for skepticism about this ... we were getting rewarded for this every day.' What does that say about the state of journalism in the Trump era?

JR: That particular situation is acutely sensitive to viewer demand, and I think among liberals, among people mortified by the results of the 2016 election, there was some hope in voters that it could kind of be rerun or overturned if it was found to be corrupted by the Russians or by the winners. There was, I think, a lot of political hope placed in Mueller, but that it didn't make a lot of sense. A prosecutor has a very narrow job and it certainly isn't to support your wishes of an overthrow.

ME: In terms of the coverage of the Democratic primary campaigns so far, should we be optimistic about the 2020 coverage? When there's a huge story about Elizabeth Warren drinking a beer on Instagram, is that a story?

JR: I don't think we should be optimistic about 2020 coverage being better than 2016. In fact, I think it could well be worse. 2016 was, in many ways, a debacle. Not only did the press fail to inform the American people that Trump's victory was likely or possible, but he conducted the entire campaign as an exercise in media hatred, and that was just a preview of how he's going to conduct his presidency. For those two reasons, you would think that as 2020 rolls around, the American news media would have a plan for different kind of coverage. Maybe it would even be an occasion for rebuilding campaign coverage.

But instead what we've seen is basically the same ideas about how you cover a campaign are in place as in previous cycles and nothing's really changed. Most of the early coverage is about who can win and and the horse race and the maneuvering among the candidates for votes. Nobody knows anything. Polls at this point don't really mean anything. Instead of trying to make this period before the campaign really gets started as an educational period, of learning about the issues and about the candidates and where they're coming from on and on important issues, it's this sort of horse race before there was a race. So the press basically changed nothing and went into 2020 with the same concepts.

ME: I want to get to this idea of yours of a 'citizens' agenda' for campaign coverage. I have to confess, though, in covering politics for far too many decades now, I have engaged in the horse race and the polls and twists and all that. Who's going to win? Who's up, who's down? How do you change the mindset of media organizations and reporters?

JR: I think it's a long fight. I don't expect there to be much change this time, but we can hope for a minority of journalists, perhaps in local or regional settings, who just don't want to do the same thing over and over again.

A citizen's agenda approach to covering the campaigns doesn't start with the candidates and their struggle to win. It starts with the voters and what they want the candidates to be talking about. You start with this question, 'What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?' And then out of that inquiry, you have to ask it and keep asking it. You fashion a kind of priority list.Then you try to get the candidates to address those issues. I think it would be a better way to go. It would certainly be better for our political process. I think it will be tried, but on the margins.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.


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