Consuming Journalism: What happened to Newsweek?
Do you buy and read hard copy magazines anymore? I don't, unless I grab one at the airport. I haven't paid close attention to the magazine industry's health recently, but I think they have been struggling for years as people move to either online subscriptions or read articles through social media and apps. I imagine that's a good thing for the environment, but I still prefer actual books, magazines, and newspapers to staring at a screen, even though I've largely switched to digital. I do get a little nostalgic for the era of the powerhouse magazines and their featured columnists. I recently started following a few of the big names on Twitter (Newsweek, Time, etc.), and it seems like the quality of the writing has fallen sharply.
On 26 November I clicked on a Newsweek tweet linking to the following article: Robert Mueller Is A Hot Head Who Can't Own Up To His Mistakes, Former Aides Say. It is a very poorly written article; I'm surprised the editors approved it.
The opening paragraph claims that Mueller is a "gruff guy who routinely undermined his subordinates and evaded responsibility as head of the FBI." Those are serious claims to level against anyone in a position of authority, let alone one of the former top law enforcement figures in the country, who is now leading an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The really troubling part, though, is that Newsweek does not name any of the sources, listing them only as several former aides and investigators who worked with Mueller. Newsweek does link to a Los Angeles Times interview as the basis of the Newsweek article, but that's insufficient.
Newsweek's questionable choice of language implies that Mueller is a flawed character. For example, "the Times dredged up some of Mueller’s most difficult moments throughout his career." Dredged conveys the idea that journalists waded into the muck for their research. Newsweek then adds that "those interviewed criticized Mueller's handling of many high-profile cases stretching back to 1979, his temperament with government witnesses, and for directing his subordinates at the FBI to shield him from criticism."
At this point in the article, we don't know who is making these claims or anything specific about their working relationship with Mueller or the vague claims. We also don't know if the LA Times article contains any of that information. This section ends with an unnamed individual alleging that Mueller "can't accept the fact that he screwed up." How exactly?
The Newsweek article then returns to providing an overview of the LA Times piece. The Newsweek author uses the passive voice to indicate that during Mueller's tenure at the U.S. Attorney's Office, "he was criticized for mishandling high-profile cases and for his treatment of government witnesses and subordinates." Use of the passive voice is an old trick that allows one to conceal the identity of the actor. In this case, we don't know who criticized Mueller, only that he was criticized.
Newsweek provides just enough information about a few of Mueller's cases to give the impression that it is offering detailed specifics about several cases. The author uses the phrase "the first of these cases" to introduce the idea that Mueller did indeed receive criticism for his handling of multiple cases.
This first case was in 1979 and involved the Hells Angels. The paragraph is confusing. According to Newsweek, Mueller took over the case, but then it mentions that a first trial was unsuccessful. It's difficult to tell if Mueller led the first trial or took over after it failed. Newsweek then repeats that Mueller "took over the case and lead [sic] a team of four prosecutors in the second trial." The second trial resulted in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial, and "Mueller decided not to ask for a retrial."
The reader is led to believe that Mueller mishandled the cases, but we actually learn only that the prosecutors did not succeed in obtaining prosecutions. The reference to Mueller's decision not to ask for a retrial seems to imply that he gave up or threw in the towel. The article does not mention if other prosecutors thought that they should press for a third trial, or whether that was even a possibility.
The earlier use of "the first of these cases" offers a roadmap to the reader, who reasonably expects additional cases and examples of Mueller's mishandling of them to be discussed. Instead, the reader learns that Mueller "transferred to the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston where he oversaw cases against Panamanian president Manuel Noriega, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, and head of the Gambino crime family, John Gotti."
These cases apparently were successes for Mueller, success that was allegedly "marked by a disdain from some of his subordinates". Newsweek, again quoting the Times, indicated that unnamed subordinates resented Mueller because he "referred privately to reassigning career lawyers as ‘moving the furniture.’" The reader needs additional context here to know whether Mueller was being disrespectful to subordinates or whether he chose poor wording to describe administrative assignments.
The article continues like this for several more paragraphs and discusses Mueller's tenure at the FBI. The article does not improve, does not provide specifics, and most importantly, does not name a single source or provide the context needed to make an informed opinion about the credibility of the source(s).
I'm not sure how the Newsweek editors let this one out the door. Given the timing, it sounds like an attempted hit piece on Mueller. The LA Times article might well be stronger and more credible, but that's not really the point. While it's important to link to source material or previous reporting by other journalists, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. This was the wrong way.
Here's the link to the Newsweek piece followed by the full text:
Robert Mueller, special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, is a “gruff guy” who routinely undermined his subordinates and evaded responsibility as head of the FBI, according to several former aides and investigators who worked with Mueller interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
In a lengthy profile published on Friday, the Times dredged up some of Mueller’s most difficult moments throughout his career as government prosecutor and as the sixth director of the FBI, a post he maintained from 2001 until 2013.
Those interviewed criticized Mueller’s handling of many high-profile cases stretching back to 1979, his temperament with government witnesses, and for directing his subordinates at the FBI to shield him from criticism.
One former aide went so far as to say that Mueller is “someone that can’t accept the fact that he screwed up.”
The Times profile begins by focusing on Mueller’s tenure at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he was criticized for mishandling high-profile cases and for his treatment of government witnesses and subordinates.
The first of these cases took place in 1979, when Mueller, as head of the U.S. attorney’s special prosecutors unit, took over the case against 33 members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club charged with drug trafficking, murder, and bombings. The first trial, which sought to imprison 18 of the accused members, was unsuccessful, as the five convictions reached in the case were overturned on appeal.
Mueller then took over the case and lead a team of four prosecutors in the second trial with 11 eleven defendants. However, as reported by the Times, “after four months, the jury said it was deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial. Mueller decided not to ask for a retrial.”
Mueller then transferred to the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston where he oversaw cases against Panamanian president Manuel Noriega, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, and head of the Gambino crime family, John Gotti.
However, his success was marked by a disdain from some of his subordinates. As noted by the Times, Mueller sparked resentment “when he referred privately to reassigning career lawyers as ‘moving the furniture.’”
After a short stint in private practice, Mueller returned to public service as a homicide prosecutor in Washington, D.C. in 1995, where Mueller reportedly had a tough time forging relationships with victims, suspects, and government witnesses and was charged with being cold and unsympathetic.
"He was a gruff guy, and a lot of times, there wasn't much warmth or ability to really build a bond or connect with a victim-witness," one of Mueller’s fellow investigators told the Times. "There's times when you've got to bond with the suspect to get what you need. His personality wasn't necessarily the best for that."
Mueller was also criticized for his time as head of the FBI. He led the investigation into the deadly anthrax attacks in the years after 9/11 for nearly seven years, ultimately leading in the prosecution of the wrong suspect, who later successfully sued the government for $5.8 million.
After agents successfully traced back the anthrax to an Army microbiologist who committed suicide once he was informed of the impending charges, Mueller “was reluctant to publicly address the missteps” in the case.
"I think he was personally embarrassed," a former aide told the Times. "I would assess him as someone that can't accept the fact that he screwed up."
Later, as director of the FBI, Mueller instructed his staff to protect him from the agency’s oversight division, according to former colleagues interviewed by the Times.
Most notably, Mueller is charged with scrapping a highly-critical review of his Directorate of Intelligence, a unit that he had created at the FBI to investigate terrorism more effectively.
After an internal inspection reported that Mueller should “set [the unit] on fire and start from scratch,” his top aides decided to protect the director at all costs by hiding the report from the Justice Department’s inspector general.
“It was, ‘The director will get skewered. We've got to protect him, and we can't issue this,’” a former official told the Times. “Anywhere it said ‘inspection,’ they changed it to ‘review.’ And said this was a review, not an inspection, and therefore they didn't have to issue it to … the inspector general.”
Lastly, the Times article delves into Mueller’s unsuccessful attempt at negotiating with Russian officials to turn over Edward Snowden in 2013.
According to a former official, Mueller would call his Russian counterpart, Alexander Bortnikov, “starting at 3 a.m. in Washington” every day for at least a week, “begging to talk to the guy.” Bortnikov reportedly never answered the phone, and Snowden was granted asylum in Russia soon after.
Through a spokesperson, Mueller declined to comment on the Times' article.