In the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, the issue that has most consumed media coverage has been Trump’s supposed collusion with the Russian government in the 2016 election. There has been constant media speculation about Russia’s role in the election and even suggestions that Trump himself is a Russian agent. But in special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report, summarized by Attorney General William Barr last week, “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” This is conclusive—there was no collusion between Trump and Russia. This, of course, means that mass media outlets have wasted a lot of time in the past two years, and have lost a lot of credibility.
In response, we’re already seeing pushback from media outlets attempting to delegitimize the report. Most outlets focus on Barr’s connection with Trump as reason enough to distrust the summary. This skepticism is never grounded in empirical evidence, however, and is typically the result of extreme straw-grasping. “The New York Times” ran an article last Wednesday, for instance, titled “Some on Mueller’s Team Say Report Was More Damaging Than Barr Revealed.” The headline is misleading—the three journalists that worked on this article did not directly talk to any members of Mueller’s team, and instead heard it from “government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations.” In addition, no specifics about how Barr’s summary is deceitful are known. The only thing “known” is the mysterious idea that the full report is “more damaging” than the summary. Vague information that is this far removed from its original source suggests it is more of a rumor than a story and is therefore not exactly worth reporting on.
No matter what rumors the media latches on to, there has never been any direct evidence tying Trump to Russia. All the players in Trump’s campaign sold as being Russian agents, like Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, were implicated by Mueller in matters unrelated to collusion. Only two months of Cohen’s three-year prison sentence, for example, are punishment for actions uncovered by the Russia probe. The rest are for general corruption on his part such as tax fraud on his personal income. Other than some of Trump’s oddly suggestive quotes about Vladimir Putin—“He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country”—there is nothing tying Trump to Russian influence.
This is devastating for the credibility of American mass media. As Matt Taibbi put in his article “It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD,” “Nothing Trump is accused of from now on by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population.” Given the vast amount of coverage alloted to this bogus scandal, the news media will have to re-incentivize journalistic integrity to win back the trust of their audience.
One reason for this scandal’s coverage is, of course, profit-focused news coverage. “Russiagate” has been given more airtime than more relevant world events because, for one, it is juicy. A scandal implicating the US President in conspiring with a foreign power, featuring a colorful cast of nefarious characters whose turmoil can be documented in rich detail, is captivating for viewers. From a ratings perspective, it certainly makes sense why the media has focused so much on this story—it’s been like a spy movie.
On another level, however, this scandal allowed Democrats and left-leaning people a scapegoat for the 2016 election. The idea that Trump conspired with Russia to run Facebook ad campaigns that swung the election is more comforting than the idea that the Clinton campaign failed. The campaign did not focus its energies on potentially Republican-leaning Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Michigan, the loss of which cost Clinton the election. Contributing Trump’s win to a conspiracy, rather than the Democratic party’s lack of connection with its once-solid voting bases, is a nice thought. It makes sense, then, why this scandal was so captivating—there was an appetite to make sense of the past election.
No matter the mass psychology behind it, however, discussion of the Russia scandal has been a colossal waste of time and a distraction from national issues and world events actually deserving of attention. As “The Nation” journalist Aaron Maté pointed out in his article “RIP, Russiagate,” not only do media outlets like MSNBC or CNN deserve blame, but also congressional Democrats like Senator Adam Schiff who promised “more than circumstantial evidence of collusion.” It is valid that the House Judiciary Committee approved a subpoena to receive the full Mueller report last Wednesday, but Democrats should not seize this moment as an opportunity to reaffirm the notion of a Russian conspiracy. They should admit they were wrong, and begin pushing back against Trump in more meaningful ways. Trump did not collude with Russia, and we should stop caring about it.