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Is The Media Coverage Of The Mueller Investigation A Problem?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last Thursday, BuzzFeed published a story alleging that President Trump directed Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, to lie on the president’s behalf to Congress about the Trump Tower project in Moscow. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office later issued a rare statement in response, saying that “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.” That sparked a debate around the reporting behind the story. So, my opening question to all of you is: What are the repercussions of stories like BuzzFeed’s? Does it risk jeopardizing the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation while also eroding trust in the media?

meghan (Meghan Ashford-Grooms, senior editor): Media outlets have interpreted the special counsel’s statement differently. The original story by BuzzFeed was sourced to “two federal law enforcement officials,” and The Washington Post has written an article, also based on anonymous sourcing, reporting that the special counsel’s statement was meant to be “a denial of the central theses of the BuzzFeed story.” BuzzFeed continues to say that the statement is nonspecific about what the special counsel’s office claims is inaccurate, and the outlet stands by its reporting.

It’s pretty messy!

There is a pattern there, though …

sarahf: Is the pattern “Don’t rely solely on anonymous sourcing”?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): It’s also messy because the special counsel’s office may have been under pressure from the White House to reject the reporting. Which is not to say the special counsel’s office wouldn’t have issued the statement if investigators didn’t believe it. Clearly, if there’s an element in the story that doesn’t match the narrative they’re trying to tell, and there are lots of reasons why they might not want that out there in the ether. I do think, though, that it’s not entirely clear what happened — so, yeah, maybe we should talk about generalities more than specifics.

meghan: That makes sense, Nate. The BuzzFeed reporters may have gotten it right!

We don’t know at this point, but this hullabaloo has raised a lot of issues for journalism that have been around for a while. The main issue for me is the scoop war that seems to be playing out among reporters trying to figure out what Mueller knows and what he’s concluding from his investigation into whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russian officials attempting to influence the 2016 election.

natesilver: To Sarah’s question about sourcing, I’m someone who’s pretty skeptical of the media’s reliance on anonymous sources. I don’t think you could report this particular story without anonymous sources. But I do feel like the bar isn’t high enough. When a story relies on anonymous sources, the publication bar needs to be especially high.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I don’t mind scoop wars. I think it’s worth being precise about what we think is off here. My biggest concern about the Russia stories is the rush to break news that will come out on its own anyway.

Think about all of the coverage speculating about when the special counsel investigation will end or trying to guess when Rod Rosenstein will resign. The end of the investigation will be public. That resignation will be public. Those are not things that we need reporters to unearth.

meghan: There are so many of those.

sarahf: Yeah, and it seems like by trying to get the inside scoop before news breaks, reporters end up making a bigger mess of it.

natesilver: There have been quite a few screw-ups on Russia-related stories. Maybe four or five that I can think of, offhand.

Most of those were stories that painted Trump in an unfavorable light, but there was also the infamous New York Times “FBI Sees No Clear Link To Russia” story, which was a massive error in the other direction.

meghan: One of the biggest issues I have with anonymously sourced stories, especially when one is challenged: The public, experts and other reporters can’t evaluate how strong the reporting is if they don’t know where it came from.

Perry and Nate, I’m curious about why there might be more screw-ups on this topic. Is it because the special counsel isn’t providing much information? And so reporters have to go digging?

natesilver: It’s partly because the special counsel’s office has been so circumspect in what they do reveal to the public, yeah.

But I also think it’s because there are probably pro- and anti-Trump factions within the Justice Department.

That was sort of the Times’s explanation for the “no clear link” story: The Trump folks in the FBI were selling this framing to us, and maybe we were too uncritical in buying it, although there was a grain of truth to it.

So you wonder, if the BuzzFeed story was wrong, was that because there were anti-Trump parts of the U.S. attorney’s office that were getting out over their skis on the story? Or, alternatively, were there pro-Trump forces who were deliberately trying to spin a false story to undermine trust in the press?

meghan: That’s really interesting, Nate, and suggests that knowing who is talking would be super valuable for readers. But, of course, finding a balance is tough. Most of those stories wouldn’t be published if anonymity weren’t granted. But I would then ask whether all of those stories are necessary.

sarahf: And that’s where we’re currently at with the BuzzFeed story? It could be that BuzzFeed did get it right, but the problem is that we don’t know and we won’t know for a while.

Which raises the question, then, of why rush to break this particular story?

perry: I think there are a few explanations for the mistakes in Russia stories specifically: 1) There are a lot of people competing on this story, so getting a scoop is hard and requires you to be aggressive, perhaps too aggressive. 2) The special counsel’s office is basically unwilling to confirm or deny most stories. 3) There are many different kinds of sources who are trying to play the media to their advantage here — the attorneys of the various players, the various factions at the Justice Department, congressional Democrats, the White House, etc.

sarahf: Perry’s third point is an interesting one that doesn’t seem to be talked about much in coverage of the investigation — this idea that maybe Michael Cohen and others aren’t necessarily the most credible sources? Or, at the very least, should be treated more skeptically because they’re motivated to portray their involvement in a certain light.

perry: Like, it’s clear to me that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani is an unnamed source for many of these stories. And while he might have some information, he’s also obviously an interested party.

meghan: I did not realize that, Perry! And that’s one of the things that I don’t think most readers would understand either.

natesilver: BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith is a pretty interesting editor. He’s both a traditionalist in some ways (coming from the NYC tabloid world) and a bit radical in others, including on issues around transparency. For example, BuzzFeed was the publication that actually released the Steele dossier.

So one thing that’s disappointed me a little is that they haven’t been more transparent about their reporting process now that it’s been called into question.

(I should say here that I’m friends with Jonah Peretti, who is the CEO of BuzzFeed. I also know and like Ben.)

perry: I assume the universe of potential sources here is quite small. So being transparent is probably hard without getting people fired.

natesilver: But, hypothetically, if a source deliberately told BuzzFeed a tall tale, shouldn’t the source be outed?

To me, the story is that BuzzFeed claimed that Cohen was “directed” by Trump to lie to Congress and that there’s various evidence for this that will come to light. That’s the whole claim. The rest of it isn’t particularly new or interesting.

meghan: I learned a lot more about the BuzzFeed story from watching Smith and reporter Anthony Cormier talk about it on CNN over the weekend. One thing that really struck me about the sourcing was that Smith and Cormier seemed genuinely not to know anything more about the allegation that they reported other than that Trump “directed” Cohen to lie. Meaning: When CNN host Brian Stelter pushed them to clarify what “directed” meant, they said they didn’t know exactly what Trump might have said to Cohen about his testimony. This surprised me.

natesilver: So if you have two sources who swear up and down that this happened and you see those sources as credible, is that enough to publish?

meghan: For BuzzFeed, yes — although Smith and Cormier sidestepped questions about whether they had other sourcing for the story.

But that’s a tough question to answer without knowing … drumroll … who the sources are!

perry: The issue with this Cohen story is that no one could confirm BuzzFeed’s reporting, but it was still picked up throughout the media and given major billing. The amplification of a story like this is hugely important — I’m guessing more people heard about it on CNN or MSNBC or through other news outlets than those who read about it on the BuzzFeed website. Basically every site, including us, does a fair amount of “x happened, according to x outlet.”

But maybe we should be more careful about that?

meghan: I totally agree, Perry. This is one aspect of the scoop war that feels different to me this time around: Stories pop up everywhere so quickly. And we should be more careful about that kind of amplification — because when news outlets talk about stories they haven’t confirmed themselves, wrong stories are spread much further and faster than they otherwise would.

sarahf: So maybe that’s the problem here. Getting a “scoop” doesn’t really work all that well when covering the Mueller investigation. It seems to risk undermining both the work of the investigation and the credibility of the journalists?

And maybe more importantly, it doesn’t actually help readers understand what the hell is going on?

natesilver: Yeah, I do think trying to single BuzzFeed out, or making it some kind of proxy war in the battle of traditional journalism vs. the internet (as this column by The New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg tries to do, for example), is dumb.

Lots of traditional news outlets, including The New York Times, have fucked Russia stories up.

perry: It depends a lot on the scoop. “The investigation will end on X day” is not that useful. Mueller will announce when the investigation is over. But here is a very useful Russia story based on unnamed sources. (It’s a piece that says, according to current and former administration officials, Trump has concealed details of his one-on-one conversations with Putin. That seems very important, both in terms of the Russia investigation, but also in terms of broader issues of U.S. foreign policy. And Trump was not likely to announce himself that he was concealing info from those meetings.)

natesilver: With that said, I do wonder as a reader, or even more so as a journalist who’s covering the political reaction to the story, how you’re supposed to assess the credibility of an anonymously sourced story.

I’ll put it like this: I’d certainly give more weight to something published in The New York Times or The Washington Post than something in any other publication that isn’t one of those two.

perry: One of the main ways I try to assess whether to trust anonymous sourcing is to look at the outlet, the reporter and whether the event happened in the past or is happening in the future (the future is hard to predict). I also look to see if other outlets would be able to corroborate the story.

And the BuzzFeed story had some of the things that make me inclined to trust a story — it was reporting on something that, if it happened, happened in the past, and something that other outlets may at some point be able to corroborate, plus BuzzFeed has broken big news before.

meghan: Having a low bar for anonymously sourced stories can create problems for the media, but I’m not sure it’s specific to the Mueller investigation. I think I’m more conservative on this question than other people: I take with a grain of salt most stories that are based on only anonymous reporting.

natesilver: Yeah, that seems basically right, Meghan. Also, one of the reporters on the BuzzFeed story, Jason Leopold, has had a history of stories that didn’t pan out. People were bringing up Leopold’s history on Twitter and I saw a lot of journalists defending him … “Oh, that was a long time ago, he’s been on very solid ground lately.” But precisely because the bar should be so high for anonymously sourced stories, maybe even a single instance of having majorly screwed up a story, even if it was 10 years ago, ought to pretty heavily weigh against someone.

meghan: This journalistic track record question is the most tricky thing in all of the responses to the BuzzFeed article.

As Perry said earlier, reporters are not perfect. And editing systems are never completely foolproof. But the internet means that mistakes never go away, so reporters who’ve had problems in the past should expect to see those reputation issues dragged up again and again if they continue to get in tough spots, especially if they work on important stories, like those about the special counsel’s investigation.

natesilver: As Rutenberg mentioned in his column (even though it actually contradicts his thesis!), even Woodward and Bernstein had a couple of medium-sized screw-ups.

perry: If I had written a story last Thursday saying that Kamala Harris was announcing her presidential run on Martin Luther King Day, according to two unnamed sources close to her campaign, would you really dispute that reporting?

I’m a generally reliable reporter on politics with some access to Harris’s team thanks to my previous work. You could rely on that kind of story with unnamed sources, right?

I’m just trying to draw us out here — are we opposed to all unnamed sources or just opposed to them in certain kinds of stories?

natesilver: But Perry … I guess I’d say the problem is sort of the reliance on anonymity, multiplied by the magnitude of the story.

Kamala Harris declaring she’ll run for president isn’t nothing, but it’s also not the president allegedly committing an impeachable offense.

perry: Yeah, that is what I was getting at, I don’t really care if unnamed sources are used for stories that are kind of routine, where the stakes are low.

natesilver: I mean, if the stories are routine, I guess one could ask why you need anonymous sources in the first place?

The Harris-declaring thing is maybe a weird exception because it was sort of an open secret.

meghan: I definitely don’t think editors should be so quick to greenlight anonymous sourcing in garden-variety types of articles.

perry: I think what I’m getting at is that some common sourcing practices on everyday politics stories are just bad. And maybe now we’re seeing this extended to a story where those kind of bad practices can cause real damage?

meghan: Totally.

natesilver: The other thing about the Mueller investigation is that the time frame is so long. If Harris hadn’t declared for president on Monday … well, people would have known right away that the stories that predicted she would were wrong and could react accordingly.

With the Mueller-Russia stuff, we’re going to have to wait months or years to know who’s right, if we ever do.

meghan: I also think reporters and editors are frustrated by the notion that whatever Mueller finds out won’t necessarily be made public. So the search for what he knows feels very IMPORTANT.

sarahf: What is the damage we think is caused by all this, though?

natesilver: In the long run — whatever Mueller finds, Trump and Giuliani are probably going to try to kick up a cloud of dust around it.

And that could include emphasizing false claims made about the investigation, or claims that didn’t live up to their billing, or stuff the media got wrong.

sarahf: And you think stories like this give them ammunition?

natesilver: For sure, yeah.

perry: So, as a journalist, the damage may be not that the “fake news” crowd gets more ammunition. It’s that regular people — who are not necessarily predisposed to be anti-media — see journalists mess up and distrust us as a result.

Also, these screw-ups breed broader confusion. I’m a professional journalist covering the political fallout from the Russia investigation, and I am still confused about some elements of the story. That’s in part because many of the Russia stories that rely heavily on unnamed sources are also written opaquely and seem aimed more at showing that reporters have access to big sources rather than clarifying what is going on for the readers.

meghan: The media credibility impact is very important, but I also think the damage that can be caused by lazy sourcing practices is simply that wrong information can get out into the public, possibly on a topic that really matters, either because reporters get used by their sources or because the sources are wrong.

natesilver: Another thing that’s been a little … disappointing … is that in all the pushback I’ve seen against the BuzzFeed story, very little of it has been focused around anonymous sourcing.

Everyone is so dependent on it that they don’t want to call it out, I guess.

meghan: Yep.

perry: CNN, for example, can’t criticize unnamed sources in the Russia investigation because they’ve usually talked to them, too.

meghan: One of things that’s tough, because so many stories are written breathlessly and based on anonymous sourcing, is figuring out what’s important and what isn’t.

perry: That’s my biggest concern — the Russia story is very confusing to many readers, I think.

meghan: And it’s worse when outlets are reporting the same story differently!

perry: It is a complicated story, but I also think you have outlets more interested in scoops than clarity.

natesilver: But I think we need to evaluate the claim that the Russia stories are an example of left-wing bias or at least anti-Trump bias.

meghan: The answer is “yes,” Nate. My sense is that many journalists covering this story consider themselves part of a race to be the next Woodward and Bernstein — i.e., to take down the president.

perry: I don’t know. We would see some of the same excesses if a Democratic president were involved in a big scandal. Imagine if the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened today: I think there would be a rash of mistakes as people tried to scoop each other, as we are seeing on this story now.

natesilver: And at least one of the big screw-ups (again, the NYT “no clear link” story) was pretty helpful to Trump.

meghan: Chad is typing!

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): I’ve been lurking … and am now butting in to say that this affair shows me it’s more of a bias toward getting a scoop than a bias toward a liberal viewpoint.

No matter how good the editing structure, journalists are by their nature aggressive even when they know they need to be cautious. The role anonymous sources play in this kind of coverage is but one example of this scoop bias.

sarahf: Yes, and it’s these high-profile missteps that further this idea that the Mueller-Russia stories are part of a left-wing bias.

natesilver: I’ll put it like this: I’m not sure that left-wing bias is a factor, but I’m certainly not sure that it’s not not a factor. (Note the double negative there.)

sarahf: A healthy dose of skepticism is definitely missing from the conversation.

perry: I do think people assume the worst about Trump. But I do not think they would do the same for, say, President Jeb Bush, so this is not just about partisanship.

natesilver: Maybe that’s a good way to put it. Reporters are willing to believe the worst about Trump. So maybe it doesn’t take as much info from sources for reporters to say, “Let’s run with it,” because the story matches their priors.

Although, yeah, maybe their priors should be willing to believe stuff about Trump that they would not believe about Jeb Bush … or Obama.

perry: Like the idea of Trump asking Cohen to lie is not crazy, at all. Cohen has already suggested Trump wanted him to violate campaign finance laws.

natesilver: It’s not crazy at all. Although there’s a lot of middle ground between “directed” (BuzzFeed’s term) versus “encouraged” versus “hinted at,” etc.

sarahf: But that’s the rub. Without more evidence of what Trump did when, it doesn’t really help the reader understand any better what happened. Which is the problem with stories like this. Is that fair? That the rush to be first and get the scoop puts you at risk of not doing good journalism?

And as a result, also jeopardizing the credibility of the investigation?

perry: I mean, the credibility of the investigation is not really in the hands of journalists.

natesilver: Yeah. Although Trump will try to muddy the waters, depending on what the investigation says.

perry: But I think the credibility of the journalism overall does depend on how we cover big stories. And yes, the rush to get scoops is a potential danger to journalism, especially if it results in big misses.

meghan: I just feel bad for readers trying to figure out what is going on.

natesilver: But the whole reason the special counsel put out that statement was presumably so that their credibility would not be damaged. Keep in mind that they have their own narrative about Cohen, which (from his plea agreement) is that he lied to Congress about Trump Tower Moscow because of his overall loyalty to Trump … and not necessarily because he was directed to do so.

So that could have led to claims that the Mueller report was “underwhelming” or had “overpromised,” etc., even though it hadn’t been the Mueller investigation making the claim in the first place.

This is sort of a dumb analogy, but it’s a little bit like, when someone else puts out an election forecast that we think is really wrong, we’ll sometimes push back hard against it and be quite vocal and obnoxious about it, just because we don’t want anyone to confuse it for our forecast.

meghan: Insert joke about us being obnoxious here 😬

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Meghan Ashford-Grooms was a senior editor for FiveThirtyEight.

Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.