Press Watch: Suckered by Barr's theatrics, political press sinks to a new low

New York Times, Washington Post and others swallow Barr's "rebuke" of Trump at face value. Have they no shame?

Published February 14, 2020 12:40PM (EST)

Bill Barr (ABC)
Bill Barr (ABC)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, an independent site that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

The initial reaction was possibly forgivable. Attorney General William Barr had used a sequence of words including "Trump," "tweet" and "impossible" that were, at least in the context of the world's most sycophantic cabinet, surprisingly tough-sounding.

But on second thought — which shouldn't have come much later than the first thought — what Barr said Thursday in his ABC News interview wasn't really so much a criticism of his boss as a whine about how Trump's tweets make it harder for him to publicly justify his outrageous enabling.

Here's the seminal Barr quote:

I'm happy to say that, in fact the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case. However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we're doing our work with integrity.

And maybe it shouldn't even have taken a second thought, because after reporters last spring were well and truly suckered — for weeks — by Barr's innocent-sounding "summary" of Robert Mueller's profoundly inculpatory findings, it should have been utterly clear to anyone paying attention that nothing Barr said should ever be taken on face value again.

Remember that? Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan coined the term Barr-Letter Syndrome to refer to "a reference to the way the mainstream press allowed Attorney General William P. Barr last spring to mischaracterize the findings of the Mueller report."

And what Barr said can't change the overwhelming evidence that he has been a dutiful enabler of Trump in every way imaginable, from investigating Trump's inane conspiracy theories with gusto to looking the other way as the president blatantly abuses his power to installing unqualified hacks to route around and interfere with career prosecutors throughout the department.

Barr is Trump's front line in undermining equal protection under the law. Nothing Barr said in any way indicated that he would not continue doing exactly that. All he complained about, really, was that Trump's tweets were creating the public appearance that Barr was behaving in ways that he would rather be able to deny.

Earlier in the day on Thursday, I wrote about how some political journalists were actually rising to the challenge, sounding the alarm about the danger Trump and Barr presented to the constitutional order.

Now the headlines were about Barr blasting the president.

But maybe they wouldn't be so easily subverted. After all, there was plenty of time for our most influential news outlets to revise their initial interpretations. Twitter was alive with excellent advice — including some from the aforementioned Margaret Sullivan, whose warning was echoed by other august media figures:

One word became the lightning rod of criticism regarding the Barr coverage. The word was "rebuke."

New York Times reporter Katie Benner called it "an extraordinary rebuke of President Trump" in her lede. Washington Post reporters Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky and Josh Dawsey called it a "remarkable public rebuke of the president." Barr "rebuked" Trump, wrote CNN's David Shortell.

But come on. Has Barr complained directly to Trump? Has he threatened to resign? Is his job truly "impossible"?

Or is it just that Trump's tweets expose reality? On Twitter, it was obvious:

Former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah:

Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Megerian:

The Nation's Jeet Heer:

MSNBC anchor (and lawyer) Ari Melber:

Lawfare editor Susan Hennessey:

Former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele:

Former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart proposed a way to assess the extent of Barr's "rebuke":

Minutes later, the White House said Trump didn't seem to take it that way:

Indeed, on Friday morning, Trump was favorably tweet-quoting from the interview, while asserting that he certainly could tell Barr what to do if he felt like it.

Those of us hitting refresh throughout the night and again in the morning — hoping that the editors of the Times and the Post and other outlets would accept the constructive criticism of their peers and revise their initial takes — were sorely disappointed.

Did they really continue to take Barr at his word? Or were they just too proud to admit they had been played?

Either way, game, set and match to William Barr. Again.

Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter and author John McQuaid tweeted that "news orgs have not figured out how to cover high officials — whom they are accustomed to treating with deference ("Exclusive"?) — who are habitual, strategic liars and use respectful coverage to advance specious diversions."

That's exactly right.

As it happens, ABC News itself reported Barr's comments more carefully than others, its headlines stating "Barr blasts Trump's tweets" — not Trump himself. But Pierre Thomas, getting the rare sit-down, didn't ask the right questions at all (as emptywheel blogger Marcy Wheeler pointed out), and set the unfortunate tone for the interview from the get-go by asking about "what appears to be at a minimum an appearance problem."

Even Barr's specific denial — that he was not operating on Trump's implicit or explicit orders when he reversed career prosecutors' sentencing recommendations for Trump pal Roger Stone, and that Trump has never given him orders about criminal matters — defies belief.

Here's Rachel Maddow on Thursday night:

Let us not abandon our powers of reasoning and common sense. I mean here, plainly, despite the official lie that was rolled out today to try to alleviate this crisis — here, plainly, the attorney general intervened personally to do this most unusual once-in-a-lifetime thing for the president's friend, because that guy was the president's friend. And there is now broadcast on ABC News an official lie about that. But the truth is evident here.

There's that old saying "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." But our elite political media gets fooled over and over again, and has no shame.

By Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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