If you can remember all the way back to yesterday, you may recall a front page New York Times article that cast Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani as something of a spokesman for Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The would-be flack laid out some major news about the Russia investigation:
Many other media outlets followed or aggregated the report. Big if true! But even the Times—as well-sourced as any outlet on this story—couldn’t get Mueller’s camp to confirm or deny it. Midway through the story, it even inferred that Giuliani’s decision to talk to its reporters was part of a strategy in which he “is apparently seeking to publicly pressure Mr. Mueller to stick to that [Sept. 1] timeline.”
It was quite an aside to be buried in the eighth paragraph of a story structured primarily around Giuliani’s interview. And today, the Times came back with a “News Analysis” piece fleshing out this very strategy. Peter Baker’s report outlined how Trump and his associates are attempting to deflect attention and lay out red lines through public statements shared with, say, major national newspapers.
Baker continued (emphasis mine):
Mr. Giuliani, a former New York mayor, in recent days has publicly outlined limits for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. Giuliani said that any interview of Mr. Trump by prosecutors could last no more than two hours, that Mr. Mueller had accepted the view that he does not have the power to indict a sitting president and that Mr. Mueller hopes to wrap up the obstruction of justice part of his investigation by Sept. 1.
Mr. Mueller has agreed to none of those publicly, and in the weeks since Mr. Giuliani began representing Mr. Trump, the former mayor has contradicted himself and the president on several occasions, so it is not known whether he reflects the special counsel’s views. But in drawing these lines, analysts said, Mr. Giuliani may be signaling to Mr. Mueller the outer boundaries of the president’s tolerance or even laying a predicate for later firing the special counsel.
There are two things to note here. The first is that Baker openly cautions against taking Giuliani’s statements at face value—a major caveat omitted from yesterday’s report. What Trump’s lawyer says could be true. Or not. His comments are basically impossible to verify without confirmation from the notoriously quiet Mueller team.
What’s more, in a 1,300-word analysis of how Team Trump is making public statements intended to pressure Mueller, there is not a single mention of an article—based almost entirely on these very statements—published on the front page the country’s most influential newspaper just a day earlier. The Times breakdown of this emerging strategy ignored its own place in it.
I contacted Baker about this omission and will update this post if I hear back. I likewise emailed the co-authors of yesterday’s report, Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt, and got no response. The public editor who would address such confusion in back-to-back pieces published in the same front-page story slot no longer exists. And Hanna Ingber, editorial director of the Times Reader Center—a sort of quasi-replacement for the public editor—didn’t directly address my emailed question of whether such issues fall under its jurisdiction:
The Reader Center works to help The Times build deeper ties with our audience. We help the newsroom identify and assess reader concerns and feedback; we share useful feedback around the building so others can learn from it; and, when appropriate, we work with journalists to respond to readers’ questions, concerns and ideas. You can see examples in our Bulletin Board section.
We also reach out to readers and incorporate their views and experiences directly into our coverage.
The Times isn’t the only outlet that’s still falling prey to Trump’s flood-the-zone media ploy; I pick on it because it’s the most prestigious. A Politico report this morning even acknowledged the national media’s broader complicity in Giuliani’s publicity campaign against Mueller:
While Mueller’s office issues multiple “no comment” statements per week, Giuliani has been on a whirlwind media tour. Last week alone, the former New York mayor made a 45-minute Friday morning CNN appearance and another lengthy hit on Fox News. He also gave multiple interviews with print reporters, including the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times — and two 30-minute interviews with POLITICO.
Giuliani’s appearances generate news in a way that outside pundits can’t....“There’s nothing that beats first-hand knowledge and Rudy claims to have first-hand knowledge,” said Matthew Miller, a former Obama Justice Department spokesman and frequent MSNBC contributor. “He’s an actor in this drama and the rest of us are commentators.”
Giuliani does have firsthand knowledge—or, more importantly, the appearance of it. The trait makes the lawyer and other Trump acolytes worthy of both SCOOPS and follow-up NEWS ANALYSIS pieces parsing whether the former are actually part of some grand plan of PR wizardry. Look forward to this self-fulfilling cycle to continue playing out for what will seem like every day of the rest of your life.
Update, 5:38 p.m.: In an email exchange, Baker disagreed with my argument that there is tension between his Tuesday story about Giuliani’s PR strategy and his colleagues’ Monday story reporting Giuliani’s statements.
“For what it’s worth, I don’t see a conflict,” he wrote. “The first story was a straight news account and the second was a news analysis meant to add more observation, context and, yes, analysis. Pretty normal. And in any case, both stories attributed the comments to Giuliani, noted that Mueller had not publicly confirmed what was being said about his plans and made clear that there were different ways to interpret what Giuliani was doing by saying it.”