The news of Mueller’s indictments, slanted four ways
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The news of Mueller’s indictments, slanted four ways

October 31, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Charges filed in Mueller investigation of alleged Russian influence on 2016 election

On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed charges against Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos. These charges are the result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and “related matters.” Manafort, 68, and Gates, 45, pleaded not guilty on Monday afternoon to the 12 charges against them, all unrelated to the Trump campaign, while Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to a charge of providing a false statement to the FBI.

The 12 charges against Manafort and Gates include conspiracy against the U.S.; conspiracy to launder money; four counts against Manafort and three against Gates for failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts from 2011-2014 and 2011-2013, respectively; providing false and misleading Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) statements; being an unregistered agent of a foreign principle; and providing false statements. The charges relate to their work with the government of Ukraine from at least 2006 to 2015. Manafort became Trump’s campaign chairman in June 2016, while Gates became Manafort’s deputy.

Manafort and Gates have been placed under house arrest after Manafort posted a $10 million bond and Gates a $5 million bond. The Washington Post reported that the money laundering charge, for the alleged $18 million Manafort is accused of laundering, could carry a sentence of multiple years if it leads to a conviction. Prosecutors would need to prove the money was involved in criminal proceedings before being “laundered,” and then was either moved through legal activities like buying assets, or was not reported under federal law. One of the charges against Manafort and Gates, “Conspiracy against the United States,” relates to an alleged failure to report monies over $10,000 held in foreign bank accounts to the Treasury Department and on federal taxes. The charge also alleges they “knowingly and intentionally” conspired to defraud the U.S. with falsified information.

Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement: lying to FBI agents about communicating with a professor connected to the Russian government in March and April of 2016. Papadopoulos reportedly said the professor told him he had “dirt” on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton from “thousands of emails.” The court records unsealed Monday showed that Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to the Oct. 3 charge on Oct. 5.

Additional sources: CNN, USA Today

Distortion Highlights

  • We analyzed four articles with very different takes on Mueller’s indictments.
  • What’s astonishing is they all stem from the same data.
  • See how bias and opinion can shape the way we view this and other stories.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Prosecutorial hardball

    And, to the extent it looks like an attempt to play prosecutorial hardball with Manafort, the president can continue to portray himself as the victim of a witch hunt. (National Review)

  • Stunning escalation

    No matter the impact of Monday’s stunning escalation of the Mueller probe, senior Democrats were determined to keep up the pressure on Republicans to shield the special counsel from threats to his investigation as it draws closer to the White House. (Politico)

  • One-two punch

    The one-two punch delivered Monday by special counsel Robert S.Mueller III — an indictment of President Trump’s former campaign chairman and a guilty plea from a former campaign adviser — is designed to send a powerful message to everyone else caught up in the probe: the prosecutors aren’t bluffing. (The Washington Post)

  • Reeling

    Capitol Hill is reeling after Mueller indictments (CNN)

  • Kneecap

    And finally, the indictment goes out of its way to kneecap a standard defense argument in such cases — that the defendant got bad advice from their accountant. (The Washington Post)

  • Shaky

    On first glance, Mueller’s case, at least in part, seems shaky and overcharged. (National Review)

  • Much ado about nothing

    The Paul Manafort indictment is much ado about nothing… except as a vehicle to squeeze Manafort, which is special counsel Robert Mueller’s objective — as we have been arguing for three months. (National Review)

  • Throw a wrench

    The indictments of two former Trump campaign officials and emergence of a third ex-Trump adviser who appears to be cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election could throw a wrench into Congress’ parallel Russia probes. (Politico)

  • Grappling

    But on Capitol Hill, the fallout was just beginning to be felt with Republican and Democratic members grappling to understand what impact the recent news would have on their own congressional investigations and the week ahead as the Republicans seek to unveil their tax plan this week. (CNN)

After the initial reports of Mueller’s indictments broke, news outlets had a lot to say about their potential effects on Washington. The four sources we examined departed from the data of the story (the indictments themselves), each presenting a very different outlook using opinion, implication and spin (noted below in red). Here’s a snapshot of each bias.

The Washington Post: A sure win

The Post gives a one-sided account of Mueller’s indictments, suggesting they’re an open-and-shut case that’s  likely to lead to convictions. That’s entirely possible, but it’s also possible they won’t — in any case, a court of law will decide that. The outlet adds:

The one-two punch delivered Monday by … Mueller … is designed to send a powerful message to everyone else caught up in the probe: the prosecutors aren’t bluffing.

As head of the investigation, Mueller is likely just doing his job. Did he also intend to send a “powerful message” with it? This, of course, is the outlet’s opinion.

National Review: A sure fail

Contrary to the Post’s article, the National Review’s suggests the indictments are flawed and will fail, that Mueller was overreaching when he issued them, and that all of this demonstrates Trump is merely the “victim of a witch hunt.” The outlet presents a few compelling perspectives about the indictments, until you compare them against the indictments themselves (click here for more on this). As for the rest of the article? It’s mostly opinion stated as fact.

The Paul Manafort indictment is much ado about nothing … except as a vehicle to squeeze Manafort, which is special counsel Robert Mueller’s objective … but it appears that Mueller’s office has turned one offense into two, an abusive prosecutorial tactic that flouts congressional intent … From President Trump’s perspective, the indictment is a boon from which he can claim that the special counsel has no actionable collusion case.

CNN: Good for Mueller’s investigation, bad for Congress’ probes

A headline like “Capitol Hill is reeling after Mueller indictments” may give the impression that there’s a problem in Washington, which is CNN’s angle on the story. The outlet suggests that, while good for Mueller, the indictments could jeopardize or render useless the congressional investigations into the same matter, for example:

But on Capitol Hill, the fallout was just beginning to be felt with Republican and Democratic members grappling to understand what impact the recent news would have on their own congressional investigations and the week ahead as the Republicans seek to unveil their tax plan this week.

It’s not uncommon for investigative bodies to work concurrently on the same case — this happens frequently in law enforcement. So why suggest it’s a problem here? CNN didn’t provide clarification. On the contrary, the outlet mentioned Democrats “applaud[ed]” the indictments and it quoted three lawmakers with similar responses — including the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman, who said “It doesn’t change anything with our investigation.”

Politico: Trouble for Congress, and maybe for Mueller

Similar to CNN, Politico wrote in its headline that Mueller “blindside[d]” Congress’ Russia investigators, adding that the indictments “could throw a wrench into Congress’ parallel Russia probes.” The outlet also emphasized the notion that Trump could interfere in the investigation by ousting Mueller, for instance:

No matter the impact of Monday’s stunning escalation of the Mueller probe, senior Democrats were determined to keep up the pressure on Republicans to shield the special counsel from threats to his investigation as it draws closer to the White House.

Politico introduced this notion early on in the article, which taints the way we view related information, and towards the end it cited the White House’s comment on the matter, possibly trivializing the administration’s response by writing that it “waved away the issue.”

It’s kind of remarkable that these four articles essentially stem from the same story, isn’t it? That’s the power of bias and opinion.

Opinion isn’t inherently bad or useless, but it’s limiting when news outlets don’t own it and don’t differentiate it from the actual data of a story, because readers can walk away thinking they’re one and the same.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 48% Spun

  • 56% Spun

  • 58% Spun

  • 60% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

Politico

“No matter the impact of Monday’s stunning escalation of the Mueller probe…”

On Monday, the Department of Justice unsealed charges against Manafort and Gates, and records that Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to false testimony.

National Review

“On first glance, Mueller’s case [against Manafort and Gates], at least in part, seems shaky and overcharged.”

Mueller’s investigation indicted Manafort and Gates.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

The so-called conspiracy against the United States involves Manafort’s and Gates’s alleged failure to file Treasury Department forms required by the Bank Secrecy Act. In addition, they allegedly failed to register as foreign agents from 2008 through 2014 and made false statements when they belatedly registered. (National Review)


The National Review simplifies count one of the indictment, “Conspiracy against the United States,” by describing it as a “failure” to file various forms, when the indictment also includes the defendants’ alleged efforts to withhold and falsify information for monetary gain.

The court filing for count one said Manafort and Gates “knowingly and intentionally” conspired to defraud the U.S. by “impeding, impairing, obstructing, and defeating” the governmental functions of certain government agencies. Manafort and Gates allegedly made false statements to government agencies and private financial institutions as part of this effort.

In one example listed in the indictment under “Manafort and Gates’ fraud to increase access to offshore money,” Manafort allegedly requested his son-in-law falsely tell a bank appraiser that he and Manafort’s daughter were living on a rental property, so Manafort could use it as collateral to get a larger loan amount (loans on owner-occupied properties are greater than loans on rental properties). Manafort had bought the property using foreign funds.

The indictment claims that in 2016, after media outlets reported on Manafort’s alleged ties to Russia and Ukraine, Manafort and Gates developed a “false and misleading cover story” for two Washington D.C. firms to use if they were asked about Manafort’s connections with Ukraine. After providing the “cover story” to one of the firms, a representative allegedly contacted Gates, saying “there’s a lot of email traffic that has you much more involved than [the alleged cover story] suggests. We will not disclose that but heaven knows what former employees of [Company B] or [Company A] might say.”

Mueller charges false statements in the specific context of foreign-agent registration (FARA) in count 11. Mueller adds a second false-statement count (count 12) for the same conduct, charged under the penal-code section (Section 1001 of Title 18, U.S. Code), that makes any falsity or material omission in a statement to government officials a felony punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. One cannot make a false statement on the foreign-agent registration form without also making a false statement to the government. Manafort may say that Mueller has violated double-jeopardy principles by charging the same exact offense in two separate counts. (National Review)


The outlet’s explanation for the two false statement counts may suggest that Manafort and Gates are being charged twice for the same crime, hence the “double-jeopardy” suggestion. However, the false statement allegations in the indictment aren’t limited to the FARA registration; they also include false statements made on tax documents. Of the charges listed under counts 11 and 12 of the indictment, FARA is only mentioned in count 11 (22 U.S. Code § 612). Count 12 more broadly covers any fraudulent statements or concealments against the U.S.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s objective is to influence Manafort. (National Review)

Since this statement lacks attribution, we cannot know whether it accurately reflects Mueller’s objective. The court filings don’t list Mueller’s objective as “influencing” Manafort, but rather to charge him for the crimes he and his associate allegedly committed.


Former FBI director James Comey had given multiple assurances that Trump is not a suspect. (National Review)

It’s true that Comey has said multiple times that Trump wasn’t being investigated during his time at the FBI, but the National Review doesn’t mention Comey’s reasoning for not initially going public with that information, which could broaden readers’ understanding of how investigations work.

In Comey’s statement to Congress, he mentioned Trump wanted him to publicly announce that he wasn’t being investigated. Comey said the FBI and the Department of Justice had been “reluctant” to publicly state they didn’t have an “open case” on Trump because it might “create a duty to correct, should that change.” The scope of an investigation, and those involved, may change over time.

Papadopoulos admitted on Monday to lying to the FBI about his efforts to connect Russian entities with Trump’s team. (Politico)


This statement misrepresents the timing of Papadopoulos’ guilty plea. Although his plea was unsealed, or made public, on Monday, he actually plead guilty on Oct. 5, 2017, according to court filings.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Outright says the indictment is a benefit for Trump.

We don’t know yet if the indictments will lead to convictions, more indictments, further investigation into Trump, or none of the above. Saying it’s a “boon” for Trump and implying it won’t lead to anything substantial is premature — as would implying it will be a problem for him.

Could imply Trump is hiding something.

Emphasizing that Trump “insists” allegations have “NOTHING” to do with him could portray him as defensive, and indirectly suggest he’s guilty of hiding something. The outlet could avoid the implication with more neutral language, such as “Trump says allegations don’t involve him.”

Could suggest the charges relate to inappropriate campaign ties.   

By juxtaposing the “former aides charged” with alleged “new campaign ties,” the Times could imply they’re connected, or that the charges are related to work on the campaign. The charges against Manafort and Gates are for issues prior to work on Trump’s campaign.

Highlights the indictment is “unrelated” to the campaign.

This clarifies that the indictment doesn’t implicate the presidential campaign directly, unlike the two headlines above that may encourage readers to reach this false conclusion.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Saying “the prosecutors aren’t bluffing” implies the Mueller investigation has an advantage and is likely to prevail in its efforts to convict someone. (The Washington Post)
  • Mueller’s indictments could have a negative impact on the congressional investigations. (CNN)
  • Mueller’s indictments show his investigation is effective, but they increase concerns that Trump may interfere with the investigation by firing Mueller. (Politico)
  • Mueller’s indictments aren’t well founded — he’s just playing “prosecutorial hardball.” The indictments don’t necessarily indicate a problem for Trump.  (National Review)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • The prosecution may be acting solely in the interest of achieving justice and protecting U.S. elections from interference, and may be simply following the evidence to its logical conclusions.
  • The investigations may have different areas of focus, and may pursue different avenues of investigation, so one doesn’t necessarily invalidate the others. Also, without more information on the focus and state of each investigation, it’s difficult to tell how one may impact another.
  • Although some Democrats are making efforts to “shield” the investigation from interference (such as the two bipartisan bills senators introduced to protect Mueller from being fired by Trump), the White House stated “there’s no intention or plan” to make changes with regard to the special prosecutor, which may indicate Trump will not intervene.
  • The validity of the charges against Manafort and Gates will be decided in court. And while the particular counts listed in the indictments may not implicate Trump, it’s still possible that Trump or his associates may come under further scrutiny as the investigation continues, or that Manafort may provide evidence of illegal activities that could implicate Trump.