The Mueller indictments: How the media keeps a biased narrative alive and well
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The Mueller indictments: How the media keeps a biased narrative alive and well

February 19, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Mueller investigation indicts 13 Russian nationals, 3 entities for alleged US election interference

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Department of Justice announced on Friday.

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • The coverage of the Mueller indictments was familiar: the bias centered around Trump and the question of collusion.
  • In this case, however, Mueller’s findings made that bias more apparent.
  • See how a biased, unsubstantiated narrative on the Russia investigation does society a disservice.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Aggressively sowed the seeds of chaos

    But the latest Mueller indictment details the extent to which Russians aggressively sowed the seeds of chaos in American politics to push on behalf of Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders and against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. (Breitbart)

  • Insidious online pests

    We take a closer look at these insidious online pests to explain how they work. (The New York Times)

  • Enflame the fringes

    They created social media groups designed to enflame the fringes of American society, including pushing Black Lives Matter, immigration control, religious groups, and certain geographic areas inside the United States. (Breitbart)

  • Relentless

    But it painted a picture of a Russian operation that was multipronged, well financed and relentless. (The New York Times)

  • Huge but hidden

    In an extraordinary indictment, the U.S. special counsel accused 13 Russians Friday of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, charging them with running a huge but hidden social media trolling campaign aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. (AP)

  • Dark terms

    Prigozhin himself, per the Times quoting him via Russian state media outlet Ria Novosti, responded to the indictment in dark terms. (Breitbart)

  • Startling

    The C.I.A. has conducted such operations for decades, but both Mr. Mueller’s indictment and an intelligence assessment last year present a startling example — unprecedented in its scope and audacity — of a foreign government working to help elect an American president. (The New York Times)

  • Drops hammer

    Mueller drops hammer with indictment of 13 Russians in election meddling conspiracy. (Breitbart)

  • Rocked

    Special counsel Robert Mueller rocked Washington, D.C., on Friday with the announcement of a new series of indictments of Russian agents who allegedly interfered with the U.S. presidential election in 2016. (Breitbart)

Maybe we’re all a little obsessed with Trump. A lot of media coverage seems to indicate it, and the tendency to bring the focus back to the president seems consistent with how Mueller’s indictment was reported. Mueller’s findings, in this case, make the media’s bias more evident. Here are three points from the indictment that illustrate this:

1. Russian operatives allegedly led a campaign to discredit then-candidates Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

2. The defendants were “pretending to be U.S. grassroots activists.” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that “according to the indictment, the Americans did not know they were communicating with Russians.”

3. The indictment doesn’t provide evidence that indicates the degree with which the operatives may have affected voter decisions in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Of the four outlets we analyzed, three of them centered a significant portion of their coverage on the collusion allegations against Trump and his campaign. The New York Times and The Associated Press leaned towards there being collusion, and Breitbart leaned towards there being none. BBC’s coverage was more objective, earning it an overall rating of 63 percent. It stuck to the facts and imported little opinion of its own. As a result, its total integrity rating was much higher than the other outlets, which rated between 27 and 38 percent.

None of the sources stated outright that there was or wasn’t collusion — those claims might be too risky for a news outlet to make. Instead, they used slant. Meaning, they favored their perspective on the matter using implication and other slant techniques, while providing little or no alternate perspectives. Take a look at what we found.

Bias 1– New York Times: Looks a lot like collusion

The Times first emphasized Trump in its headline (which we’ll address further down), but it was the references in the article and how they build on each other that made its bias more obvious.

The 37-page indictment … amounted to a detailed rebuttal of Mr. Trump, who has sowed doubts that Russia interfered in the election and dismissed questions about its meddling as “fake news” …

The Russian operation began four years ago, well before Mr. Trump entered the presidential race, a fact that he quickly seized on in his defense …

Mr. Mueller has gathered extensive evidence of contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign … And the Trump campaign repeatedly and falsely denied any contacts with Russia.

We’ve noted the spin (the dramatic or subjective language) in red, as it often reflects the bias being promoted. Do you notice a trend?

Put together, it portrays Trump and his campaign as hiding something, or as the word “falsely” suggests, downright lying about it. Except none of the suggestions of collusion are supported by evidence — which makes sense, since the investigations are ongoing — so the implication is premature. It’s another case of the media playing judge and jury. In this regard, Breitbart fared no differently — its coverage was 71 percent slanted, compared to the Times’ 84 percent. Breitbart just took the opposite side.

Bias 2 – Breitbart: No collusion here!

After Rosenstein announced the indictments Friday, Trump sent the following tweet:

Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!

Rosenstein didn’t exactly say the Russian campaign had zero effect on the election, as Trump did. Rather, he noted that “there is no allegation in the indictment of any effect on the outcome of the election.” That said, Breitbart had its own opinion on the matter.

[The indictment] also seems to disprove the notion that the Trump campaign engaged in collusion with the Russians, at least in this particular case, despite contacts these Russians allegedly had with Trump campaign officials and associates …

Trump says that this indictment vindicates him with regards to the Russia investigation, demonstrating that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians …

While Trump is correct on that note that this indictment does not demonstrate collusion between his campaign and the Russians, the indictment does once and for all clearly demonstrate that the Russians engaged in a sophisticated effort to influence U.S. political events in 2016.

Terms such as “disprove,” “vindicates” and “demonstrate” suggest the evidence is clear and there was no collusion, but that’s not what the indictment said, and that possibility is something Mueller and his team continue to investigate. So it’s premature to jump to conclusions and say that just because this indictment doesn’t allege anything about Trump, he or his campaign are in the clear. Well, they’re innocent until proven guilty, and outlets like the Times and Breitbart defend either side of the argument as if it’s an open-and-shut case. It doesn’t appear to be.

Missing perspective 1: Maybe it’s not about Trump

We spotted two key takeaways from the indictment the outlets didn’t address. One is that the Russian effort wasn’t entirely about Trump. The Times, for instance, suggests otherwise in its headline: “13 Russians Indicted as Mueller Reveals Effort to Aid Trump Campaign.”

Was the effort aimed at aiding Trump’s campaign? Allegedly, but also Sanders’. If you read the indictment, or hear Rosenstein’s statement and Q&A, you might notice the spotlight wasn’t on Trump. Rather, it seemed the efforts were more focused on limiting the other three candidates’ chances of winning.

Of course Trump did win the election, and there are other factors as to why he may be receiving greater attention, including some of his former officials being under investigation, and his possible obstruction of justice in the FBI’s investigation. But you have to wonder how much of the attention is appropriate, and how much supports bias and partisanship around an allegation that hasn’t been proven by law enforcement agencies. In this sense, the media plays a significant role in keeping the narrative, drama and intrigue alive and well. And the disproportionate emphasis keeps Clinton in the role of potential victim of an unfair election (as opposed to looking more objectively at why she lost the election), and it keeps Trump in the guilty seat.

As a small but illustrative example, there were 83 mentions of “Trump” across the four articles we analyzed. And the rest of them? Twenty-seven for Clinton, eight for Sanders, and five for Cruz and Rubio. Is that mere coincidence, or is the media trying to tell us something through constant repetition?

Missing perspective 2: No one’s talking about the root of the issue

Referring to the Russian efforts, Rosenstein said, “We must not allow them to succeed.” The question the media isn’t asking is, “how?”

Before we dive into that, it’s necessary to define the problems, and there are two big ones as far as we can see. One is possible foreign interference in U.S. affairs, which is illegal. The indictment charged the defendants with “knowingly and intentionally conspir[ing] with each other … to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes.” The other problem is how misinformation from said interference may have affected voter decisions, and we could look at this more broadly as “the effects of misinformation in U.S. society.”

Regarding the problem of interference, BBC reported that “politicians from both major parties have responded with calls for social media companies to do more to prevent political interference via their platforms.” Politicians and others have also called on the Trump administration to enact sanctions against Russia, although Mueller’s investigation hasn’t concluded that the Kremlin was involved. Seeing that laws may have been broken, some of these approaches may be valid and possibly necessary, but it won’t protect people from the effects of misinformation.

In other words, in the history of humans creating tools for our protection, no device has ever been unassailable — there’s always a backdoor. Whether it’s the most secure safe, or the most sophisticated computer program, human ingenuity and corruption can always find a vulnerability and exploit it. We can’t program, lock, control or law our way out of this one — people may be targeted by misinformation campaigns until the end of days. The question that may get more to the root of the problem is, “what can we do to not fall prey to them?”

We think the ideal short-term and long-term solution is to teach people how to think, and that begins with responsible, ethical journalism. Unless society becomes more discerning, it doesn’t really matter what protections the state affords us. Unsuspecting, unwitting people will be easy prey to those who seek to spread misinformation.

So how about it, media: shall we shift some of the focus from Trump to critical thinking for once?



“But the latest Mueller indictment details the extent to which Russians aggressively sowed the seeds of chaos in American politics …”

Mueller’s indictment gave some details of alleged efforts by Russians to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.


“But the allegation does detail a sophisticated scheme by which Russians tried to influence the American political discourse at such a volatile time in U.S. politics …”

The indictment gave details on how Russian individuals and companies allegedly tried to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The New York Times

The indictment “amounted to a detailed rebuttal of Mr. Trump, who has sowed doubts that Russia interfered in the election and dismissed questions about its meddling as ‘fake news.’”

The indictment gave details of how Russian citizens and entities allegedly interfered in the 2016 election. Trump has referred to “Russia talk” as “fake news,” and has said, “I think it was Russia,” regarding the hacking of Democrats emails.

The Numbers

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

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