The most consequential function of journalists is not reporting facts, but establishing a narrative framework for making sense of those facts. In the wake of the Mueller investigation’s whimper-like conclusion, it is apparent that the roots of the Trump-Russia failure—and there is no question that the vast majority of media coverage merited some sort of reverse Pulitzer prize—lay in a collective refusal to subject the story’s broad narrative to critical scrutiny.
For many, that narrative was powerfully attractive. It argued that the triumph of an ill-mannered, self-worshipping, know-nothing reality show star in the 2016 election was not the product of our political establishment’s alienation of key middle American constituencies or the weakness of Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy. Rather, it was the result of Russia’s malign influence, which co-opted and conspired with Donald Trump to subvert American democracy and the broader international order.
And it was widely assumed that when the facts of that subversion were exposed to the purifying effects of sunlight, Trump and his co-conspirators would be forced to leave the White House and American politics would return to its pre-crisis normality. The catastrophic mistake made by American voters could be corrected without waiting for the 2020 election. No soul-searching by Democrats or Republican Never-Trumpers would be required.
But, like most narrative frameworks, this story connected dots that could also be connected by several alternative explanations—explanations that were not sufficiently explored. It underplayed the likelihood that incompetence rather than traitorous-intent produced the Trump campaign’s eyebrow-raising contacts with Russians, and it discounted the reality that objective appraisals of America’s post–Cold War failures could reasonably advocate rethinking conventional U.S. foreign-policy wisdom regardless of how much this might accord with Moscow’s druthers. It resisted the argument that Trump was at least as much a symptom of America’s political dysfunctions and societal divides as he was a cause.
Most importantly, the narrative turned a blind-eye to indications that some of its most shocking evidence (in the form of the Steele Dossier) originated in an information campaign advanced by partisan political players with a strong interest in masking their agenda, some of whom held senior positions in the U.S. government. Few questioned how an ex-British agent banned from traveling to Russia could contact highly-placed sources in the Kremlin and Russian intelligence over unsecure email and phone links and get quick access to highly sensitive secrets denied to the world’s most capable intelligence services. Healthy skepticism took a back seat to a story that too many were too eager to believe.
This was a failure of sense-making, not of reporting. Unfortunately, this failure seems poised to continue even after the announcement of Mueller’s underwhelming findings.
Partisan players that are calling for the release of the full report (which should indeed be published to the fullest extent possible) appear eager to scour it for selective facts that they believe will support their preferred narrative. But they evince little openness to the possibility that these same facts will also be consistent with alternative explanations that they find politically inconvenient. And they seem loath to look beyond Mueller’s report to investigate what may well be egregious abuses by the FBI and Intelligence Community in spying on an opposition political campaign, which if true would constitute grave threats to civil liberties and to the checks and balances of American governance.
Moreover, it is by no means clear that the one finding from Mueller about which everyone is certain—that Russia meddled in the 2016 election in order to help Trump and sow chaos—merits such certainty. That Russians were behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee and mounted a social-media trolling and advertising campaign is clear enough. But the narrative framework that makes sense of these facts demands critical examination.
Intentions are simultaneously the most important but most difficult things to assess about one’s adversaries. Yet those judging Russian intentions toward the United States assert with little apparent reflection and no dispositive evidence that Moscow aims to rend our societal fabric because of what we are—a democracy—rather than what it perceives that we do, which is to destabilize established regimes in and around Russia.
This is a difference with significant implications: we cannot change the nature of what we are, but we can conceivably manage our differences with Russia over involvement in the domestic affairs of other countries. Media voices that uncritically accept the prevailing narrative about Russian intentions are in danger of stepping on the same rake that caused us to stumble into the Iraq “weapons of mass destruction” failure and subsequent war. Is there really only one plausible explanation of Russian intentions toward us?
Facts matter. But the narrative tissue connecting these facts into a coherent story matters even more. Before we march even farther down the road toward confrontation with the world’s largest nuclear power, we need to ask ourselves how confident we should be that we have got that narrative right.
George Beebe is Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for the National Interest. He formerly served as director of Russian analysis at the CIA and as advisor to Vice President Cheney on Russian affairs. His book, The Russia Trap, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, in August.