News that the Mueller report had been completed and sent to the attorney general came down late in the afternoon on Friday, March 22. Talk about a journalist’s worst nightmare. Even if Beer Friday is not in full swing, sources are unavailable and suddenly you and your competitors are scrambling to get something online or in print before the whole weekend is shot. There’s a reason that government agencies have made the “Friday news dump” a thing.
That’s one problem we won’t have with the public release of the (somewhat redacted) Mueller report. The report is expected to drop at 11 a.m. on Thursday. But it does present a whole ‘nother kind of problem. One that would be nice to avoid.
The document is reported to be about 400 pages. That’s longer than a typical novel, and we can only hope it will be a lot drier. It should lack the salacious and improbable details of the Steele Dossier—golden shower pee tapes, allegations that Trump was susceptible to blackmail by Russian intelligence agents, secret meetings in Prague—and present a sober, serious look at the way Russia interfered with the 2016 election, with or without the direct help of people close to the Trump campaign. Mueller’s previous indictments—of Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Rick Gates, a bunch of Russians, and others—hint that his full report won’t be pulpy.
So the worst thing that can happen is for headlines like “The Real Truth Hidden Deep in the Mueller Report” or “15 Reasons Donald Trump Is Going to Be Disappointed in the Mueller Report” to start appearing on Twitter and news apps and front pages by, oh, 11:12 a.m.
It’s painfully obvious to point out that we live in an era of hot takes and click bait. Reported pieces on trade policy, or Treasury Department sanctions against North Korea, or congressional committee hearings that don’t involve Michael Cohen or Brett Kavanaugh get a fraction of the clicks that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez gets when she posts a video of herself doing laundry on Instagram.
When I was in journalism school, I got to do a tour of the New York Times with other students and learn fun facts such as that the paper had about 40 pages of obituary material ready to go in the event of the untimely death of the president, and 20 pages for the vice president. (Bush and Quayle, if you must know.) We also learned that, way way back in the day, the NYT had launched gardening and style sections because that is what advertisers wanted. Because it kept their ads from appearing alongside stories about homicide and war and natural disasters.
Now that journalism has moved largely online and everything is metrics and analytics and eyeballs, it’s a different scene. This era’s hot takes are yesterday’s gardening section. They “finance” the serious stuff. Even the most scrupulous editor, on a normal day, might find a justification for saying, for example, that the fire at Notre Dame “feels like an act of liberation,” or crapping on George H.W. Bush’s service dog.
Today. Is. Not. That. Day.
With the caveat that maybe some publications—this is rank speculation—will get a sneak peek of the full report and might have responsible analysis ready to go quickly while the public is still digesting it, there’s no real justification for rushing to be first out of the gate on this one.
For starters, everyone will have the same source material. People can read it for themselves. (And should.) There is immense value in having skilled legal experts and learned journalists with analytical skills and significant stores of knowledge share their findings after a deep dive into the report.
But people on both sides of the Trump divide are bound to be disappointed. Liberals responded to William Barr’s four-page letter summarizing the findings by wringing their hands over how Mueller failed them and they were wrong to place their hope in him. Trumpkins echoed the president’s “total exoneration” line.
And now the truth—in the full report—is likely to fall somewhere in between. Trump skeptics likely won’t have a magic wand to wave and make Trump go away. Trump supporters likely are going to have a portrait that is, at best, more complicated than they’d like.
It’s going to take a while to absorb that and understand the facts fully. By all means, let’s take that time.