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How Cable News Covered Mueller In 2018

For a guy who does his work mostly behind closed doors (and occasionally in airport waiting areas), special counsel Robert Mueller sure is on the news a lot. It’s been a year of indictments, subpoenas and guilty pleas, of online rage and attempted firings, and of “Witch Hunts” and “Angry Democrats” (to quote the president). Cable news has been there every step of the way. In case you missed all the fun (and if you did, please let us know how), here’s a look back at the year that was in the Mueller investigation — as lived through CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, courtesy of data from the TV News Archive.1

On average, every day, these three networks devoted 3 percent of their news coverage — not counting commercials and non-news programming — to Mueller in 2018. (TV News Archive measures this by chopping all the news into 15-second clips and counting how many mention the word “Mueller.” By comparison, President Trump’s name showed up in 13 percent of these networks’ news coverage this past year.) CNN sat in the middle of the networks with its Mueller coverage, averaging about 3.1 percent. MSNBC averaged around 4.2 percent, while Fox News averaged around 1.7 percent.

As far as raw quantity, not all Mueller stories were created equal in the eyes of cable producers, hosts and guests. What got the cable news networks really talking about Mueller were the meta-investigative stories: Trump’s Twitter rants, the attempted firings and the existential threats posed to the investigation itself. What’s more fun to talk about than whether someone will give you something new to talk about in a few weeks? Here’s a breakdown of the year of Mueller murmurings, season by season.2

Jan. 25-26

Mentions of Mueller peaked at the beginning of the year, but not because of something Mueller did. On Jan. 25, The New York Times reported that President Trump had ordered Mueller’s firing in June 2017, only to relent when the White House counsel threatened to quit — it was reportedly “the first time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel.” This was the day that Fox News mentioned Mueller the fourth most often in 2018 — in nearly 7 percent of its coverage. The following day, Jan. 26, set the 2018 records for CNN and MSNBC at about 17 and 19 percent, respectively.

March 18-19

On March 18, Trump tweeted about the Mueller team’s supposed “13 hardened Democrats.”

It was Trump’s first such Twitter reference to that group that he would come to repeatedly harangue on the social network, later often calling them the “13 Angry Democrats.” (Later it became 17.) On the 19th of March, CNN and MSNBC devoted around 13 percent of their coverage to Mueller. Fox clocked in at around 6 percent.

April 10-11

The Times reported on April 10 that Trump had also tried to fire Mueller in December — the second known time. Two of the networks responded with plenty of coverage, but it never quite surpassed January’s frenzy. April 10 was a Top 3 Mueller day for CNN and MSNBC, and April 11 wasn’t far behind. Neither date cracked Fox News’s Top 15, however. If you’ve seen one attempted firing of a special counsel, perhaps you’ve seen them all.

May 1-2

On April 30, the Times published a list of “at least four dozen questions” that Mueller wanted to ask Trump as part of the investigation into the administration’s Russian ties and possible obstruction of justice, including, according to Times’ sources, “What was your opinion of Mr. Comey during the transition?” (referring to the fired FBI director) and “What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?” (referring to Trump’s attorney general who removed himself from the Russia investigation). CNN and MSNBC devoted more than 10 percent of their coverage to Mueller in response to the news; Fox ticked above 7 percent.

May 4-5

On MSNBC and CNN, the Mueller hubbub dropped off pretty quickly pretty quickly after the list of questions was published, but May 4th represented the third most Mueller coverage on Fox News — 6.8 percent of coverage. Fox was still talking about the special counsel the next day, with 5.5 percent of its coverage mentioning Mueller. Why? This appears to have been sparked by challenges to Mueller’s investigation by a Virginia federal judge. On Fox, Sean Hannity described it as “a federal court literally excoriating a member of Mueller’s legal team, accusing the investigation of going way beyond its mandate, as we have been saying, using authority it never had, doesn’t have, to politically persecute President Trump.” He continued: “You probably won’t see this story in the mainstream media.” Criticism from the judge about Mueller’s prosecution notwithstanding, the case in question continued.

Aug. 21

The summer season was a bit quieter on the Mueller front, but this particular dog day saw heavy use of live split screens as Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, was convicted of fraud and Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, pleaded guilty to fraud and other violations on the same day. Mueller’s name escaped the lips of the heads talking on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News in 7.9, 7.8 and 5.3 percent of their coverage, respectively. Relative to the president’s Twitter bluster and the Times’ anonymously sourced reporting, these actual legal outcomes occasioned relatively few mentions of the man behind the investigation.

Oct. 28

This was, according to our data, the only day all year that MSNBC did not mention Mueller. It was a Sunday, a day of rest. (CNN had eight days with no mentions; Fox News had two.) Overall, the pre-election period was a fallow one for television mentions of the special counsel, perhaps evidence that Mueller really did lay low before the election, as was widely believed.

Nov. 16

The day before, Trump had launched another Twitter attack on the investigation, illustrating that, as the Times put it, he had “abandoned a strategy of showing deference to the special counsel.” His tweets referred to “all of the bad acts and crimes on the other side” and “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT LIKE NO OTHER IN AMERICAN HISTORY!”

MSNBC devoted a sizable 11.5 percent of its coverage to Mueller that day.

Nov. 26-29

Holiday season brought lots of news. Cohen pleaded guilty again. Mueller said that Manafort breached his plea deal by lying. Trump was reportedly considering pardoning Manafort. Nancy Pelosi was threatening to tie protections for Mueller to a must-pass spending bill. Stephen Colbert sang Trump a parodic Christmas carol. These events helped gin up some winter mentions late last month: Nov. 29 was a Top 10 Mueller day for all three networks — and the single most Muellerful day on Fox.

And now we arrive at the end of the year. Mueller’s investigation is still happening, with no end in sight. In other words, next year is almost sure to see more Twitter tantrums and indictments, and to hear Mueller’s name mentioned many, many more times.

Footnotes

  1. The TV News Archive “repurposes closed captioning to enable users to search, quote and borrow U.S. TV news programs.” To gather its data, we used the GDELT 2.0 TV API.

  2. And by “seasons” we really mean three-month periods.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Dhrumil Mehta is a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight focusing on politics.

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