One drawback to being an authority is the need to sound authoritative. After a weekend of anxiety and confusion and a thin scum of official information floating to the top of the boiling pot of speculation about the investigation into Donald Trump and Russia, Monday arrived. The New York Times landed on the hallway carpet with a confident banner headline: “MUELLER FINDS NO TRUMP-RUSSIA CONSPIRACY.”
It was concise and clear. It just wasn’t true, or the Times had no idea whether it was true. Robert Mueller had knocked off work on Friday without telling the New York Times anything about what he had or hadn’t found. The only information the Times had about Mueller’s findings was a series of partial quotes supplied by attorney general William Barr, in a letter in which Barr declared that he had decided not to prosecute the president for obstruction of justice.
Technically, what the quote from Mueller’s report said was that the investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” The Times wrote that Mueller “found no evidence” of conspiracy, which people gamely but hopelessly pointed out was not the same thing. Information about the substance of the evidence was still as unavailable as it had been on Friday morning, so all there was to deliver a verdict: NO TRUMP-RUSSIA CONSPIRACY.
James Fallows, on Twitter, rounded up some other print headlines. The Washington Post had made the same decision as the Times in its print edition: “Mueller finds no conspiracy.” USA Today boiled it down to “NO CONSPIRACY.”
The Times and the Post both did publish more complete, less inaccurate headlines on their websites, the Times by adding “but Stops Short of Exonerating President on Obstruction” and the Post by adding “attorney general says.” Put them together, and they almost correctly described the news.
Yet it was possible to get the whole thing in a headline, if one tried. The Seattle Times was able to write one with the actual, attributable facts: “Barr: No collusion, no exoneration.” So was AM New York: “AG SUMMARY OF MUELLER REPORT: NO PROOF TRUMP CONSPIRED WITH RUSSIA.”
Why couldn’t the heavyweight papers do the same? The Times headline, in particular, was unpleasantly close to its widely criticized October 31, 2016, offering, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” so that the whole thing had the feel of a Glenn Greenwaldian victory lap. But mostly it seemed to be a function of the major newspapers’ self-seriousness: they had been kept dangling long enough, with the Russia investigation unresolved and Mueller’s findings out of sight. Now it was time to declare the news settled.
What the Seattle Times and AM New York understood is that nothing is ever over. The only relevant actor in the Sunday-to-Monday news cycle was William Barr. All the information that Robert Mueller had spent nearly two years gathering, and which the press had spent nearly two years trying to find out about, was now in Barr’s custody. The attorney general had said one or two things about it, and had chosen not to say anything about the rest. What he said was Monday’s news. What he’d left unsaid was the news someone in the future would still have to get.