Two Universes, One Report

The release of Robert Mueller’s findings was a choose-your-own-adventure moment for political punditry.

Mueller's report, seen on a cellphone outside the White House, included redactions of sensitive information. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty)

It was one of the most consequential days of his presidency, and Donald Trump knew exactly where he wanted Americans getting their news.

“Attorney General William Barr’s Press Conference today at 9:30 AM ET,” he wrote Thursday morning in a characteristically overcapitalized tweet. “Watch on @FoxNews @OANN.”

In some other, quainter era, the president directing his fans to a pair of unabashedly partisan news channels might have constituted a minor scandal. A round of tut-tutting from government ethicists, perhaps; some stern head-shaking from bipartisan respectables. But for Trump, this was par for the course—and as cable-news chyrons began flashing across TV screens, it was easy to grok why he’d played favorites.

On CNN, the headline from the attorney general’s press conference gestured toward presidential malfeasance: AG BARR: MUELLER LOOKED AT “10 EPISODES” INVOLVING TRUMP AND OBSTRUCTION.

Fox News, meanwhile, declared presidential vindication: AG BARR: SPECIAL COUNSEL FOUND NO COLLUSION.

There is nothing new, of course, about the American media’s descent into a choose-your-own-adventure dystopia of information bubbles and confirmation bias. But this week’s coverage of the Mueller report stood out as a stark example of our fracturing media landscape—and the dysfunctional discourse it’s produced.

From the moment the 448-page document was published, two separate news universes took shape. In one, the special counsel’s report was presented as a smoking-gun chronicle of high crimes and misdemeanors. In the other, it was heralded as a credibility-shredding blow to the president’s opponents.

In between those two poles were plenty of journalists laboring dutifully to make sense of the report and give it proper context. But if what you wanted as a news or social-media consumer was simply an assurance that you’d been right all along about Trump and Russia and everything else, you could nestle yourself safely in a cocoon of validation, and stay there for the remainder of the news cycle.

Looking for shouty, tabloid-style headlines on the web? Feel free to choose between HuffPost (“MUELLER REPORT OUT—TRUMP SAID: ‘I’M FUCKED’”) or Breitbart News (“MORE EXONERATION! NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION”).

Looking for prime-time punditry on cable? Take your pick between MSNBC (Lawrence O’Donnell and Rachel Maddow gleefully joking about casting actors to perform their favorite parts of the report) or Fox News (Tucker Carlson declaring the report “the single most humiliating thing that has ever happened to the White House press corps in the history of this country”).

Maybe you’d rather mix it up on Twitter? In that case, you’re free to sample from the stylings of legendary tweetstormer and #resistance hero Seth Abramson (who composed a 450-tweet thread on the first volume of the report alone), or simply peruse the #MAGA hashtag for triumphalist memes and general lib-owning.

As usual, the type and degree of post-Mueller partisan spin differed across the political-media spectrum. Certain conservative outlets seemed more willing than their liberal counterparts, for example, to amplify outright falsehoods—like the president’s flatly untrue claim that he’d been “exonerated” by the special counsel—in service of their narratives.

But the real problems laid bare by the Mueller coverage are structural, and go deeper than the most shameless liars and fevered conspiracists. Like many complicated news stories, the Mueller report had enough fodder to satisfy propagandists of every political stripe. There were genuinely damning revelations about the president and his allies, but there were also conclusions that punctured some of the most prevalent theories about Trump on the left.

Alan Miller, the founder of the News Literacy Project, tweeted Thursday that the best course for responsible citizens in breaking-news situations is to expose yourself to as much credible information as possible. “Turn to a range of reputable sources,” he wrote. “Don’t jump to hasty conclusions. Try to separate fact from opinion. Follow the story over time. Be wary of emotional appeals and misinformation. Share responsibly.”

Unsurprisingly, that advice was drowned out this week by the cacophony of noise that was Mueller mania. What we were left with instead was a political Rorschach test, where participants glanced at the news and then screamed their conclusions. There was no consensus, but somehow everyone felt vindicated.