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Mueller and the Media, Take Two

This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

On a recent episode of “The Argument” podcast, I told my colleague Ross Douthat that I thought he was unfairly lumping together different parts of the media when criticizing the coverage of the Russia investigation.

Yes, cable television engaged in wild speculation before Robert Mueller issued his report. And, yes, some news outlets, including BuzzFeed News and McClatchy, published stories that today look dubious. But the newsrooms covering the investigation most closely, including The Times and The Washington Post, generally did an excellent job distinguishing among fact, uncertainty and falsehood.

I think the coverage of the end of the Mueller investigation was different, however. Across the media spectrum, much of the coverage was problematic.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

To review: Mueller has written a report that very few people have seen. Its only official public description has come from William Barr, the attorney general whom President Trump appointed primarily because of Barr’s hostility to the investigation. And the difference between Barr’s letter and Mueller’s report has created widespread confusion.

“The press, to put it mildly, has not handled the confusion well,” Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes write in Lawfare. The media “dramatically overstated what Barr had actually said about the report,” Jurecic and Wittes write, and also incorrectly suggested Trump had been cleared of wrongdoing. The coverage also underplayed Barr’s bias.

In their article, Jurecic and Wittes offer several pieces of advice for anybody who will be covering — or trying to understand — the fuller version of the Mueller report, once it’s made public. Barr has said he will release a redacted version by early next week. Among the article’s advice:

  • Focus on what the report actually says, rather than trying to offer overly sweeping descriptions of what it means.

  • Pay more attention to the details of the report than to the reactions from Congress, the White House and elsewhere.

  • Be careful not to confuse a judgment about whether certain conduct is prosecutable with a judgment about whether it happened.

  • Remember that some behavior that is not prosecutable can still be wrong or damaging to national security.

  • Don’t assume that all redactions are inappropriate attempts by Barr to protect Trump.

  • Be open to the possibility of multiple, complicated story lines.

All of this strikes me as good advice.

Related: James Fallows of The Atlantic says that The Seattle Times did a better job putting the Barr letter in context than much of the national media did.

Reader critique

In email and on social media, I’ve heard several thoughtful critiques of my article on climate policy for The Times Magazine. I don’t necessarily agree with the criticisms, but I want to share them.

Advocates of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs have said that I am too pessimistic about their near-term political feasibility. If voters can first become convinced of the need for climate action, they will eventually come around to carbon pricing, because it’s the most effective solution, the advocates say. California is following a version of this path: The state committed to a sharp reduction in carbon emissions a decade ago and has recently been strengthening its cap-and-trade program.

For longer arguments in favor of carbon pricing, see a 2017 Milken Institute Review article by Jerry Taylor or a 2016 Times column about British Columbia by Eduardo Porter.

From the other side of the debate, David Roberts of Vox says I was too positive about carbon-pricing policies. “It may be so that a tax is the most efficient single, comprehensive climate policy, but it is *simply not true* that in every economic sector or technological domain, a tax is more efficient — especially if the tax is below the ‘optimal’ level, which [it] is always,” Roberts wrote in a Twitter thread.

Finally, Paul Krugman, in his column this morning, makes an important distinction between the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

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