Read: Robert Mueller kept his promise
Most news organizations are not monoliths, and widely differing perspectives are on display at each of the outlets cited—but these are the main analyses by top reporters, and they cluster around the same point. That uniformity may be evidence that it’s correct, or it may be evidence of risky groupthink, or both, but it hardly serves the public well.
And it’s not as if the hearings themselves offered little of substance. Mueller softly but staunchly rejected several oft-repeated lies that President Donald Trump has told about the investigation into him, including that it exonerated him and that he cooperated fully; and he outlined the ways his report, while not explicitly accusing Trump of any crime, lays out in detail how Trump almost certainly obstructed justice.
There are two leading defenses of the theater-criticism approach. Here’s the first, from a plugged-in Congress reporter:
This is true as far as it goes. That’s just not very far. Democrats did frame the hearings around their optics—probably a foolish decision in prospect as well as in retrospect—but the press is under no obligation to accept their narrative. It’s hard to imagine any other situation in which reporters tried to explain away their coverage by saying they’d simply adopted politicians’ spin. And that spin is inside baseball, a meta story about process, and not the most useful thing to convey to the public as the primary takeaway from the event. Don’t shed any tears for Democrats, who set a trap for themselves and walked into it. The victim here is public understanding of the Mueller investigation.
A second, related defense is that there was nothing new in yesterday’s hearings, since Mueller stuck closely to what was in his report, so what was there to write or gab about? This reflects a broader sense of malaise in much of press coverage. Reporters know that Trump is dishonest, volatile, and often violates the law, but they are bored with that and assume the public must be as well, or they can’t find any way to make it seem new, since the same thing has been going on for more than two years.
In fact, that offered the press a mulligan, as Margaret Sullivan pointed out before the hearings. Before Mueller’s report was released, Attorney General William Barr offered a deeply misleading summary of what it said, and many news outlets reported on Barr’s statements uncritically or insufficiently critically.
The shock that many people expressed when Mueller spoke for some 10 minutes on May 29 and summarized his report, noting that “if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” showed how effective Barr’s spin had been. Large portions of the political press, much less the public, seemed not to have read or understood the report. Both anecdotal and polling evidence shows the limited public knowledge of some of Mueller’s key findings.