Manafort Charged: Media Narratives Report First Domino to Fall or Another ‘Nothing-Burger’?

AP Evan Vucci

(AP/Evan Vucci)

The Commander-in-Chief is being investigated for potential collusion with Russia and the first charges against people in his orbit were filed today. This is headline news across every media channel. This is also a topic fraught with division and could target Donald Trump, a man prone to rash and destructive behavior.  How is the news being reported today and what can you do?

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, and an associate turned themselves into the FBI this morning to face charges of money laundering, violating foreign lobbying rules, making false statements to the FBI, and tax fraud. News also emerged that George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign advisor, is working with the FBI after reaching a plea deal earlier in the month. Papadopoulos had lied to the FBI about his communications with Kremlin-linked sources during the campaign.


How is it covered?

As we said, this is headline news across the political media spectrum. News is breaking throughout the day. We have the White House deflecting attention and asking supporters to focus on calling for an investigation into Hillary Clinton (again) and Manafort pleading “not guilty.”

Most media sources are headlining the Manafort arrest and subbing a story on Papadopoulos beneath. Beyond that, sites like the New York Times and Washington Post are adding “Analysis” which range from breaking down the legal implications of a plea deal to needling Trump for claiming the whole investigation was a hoax.

We are going to look at The Washington Post and Fox News. CNN and MSNBC are also devoting serious resources to the news. However, they are reporting with a dose of hysteria as though the administration could collapse on television any moment. For a more sober analysis, we choose the Washington Post today because they have been diligent with the unfolding collusion scandal. Fox represents the White House’s sympathetic viewpoint.


The Washington Post

WaPo Manafort 10.30.17

The Post reporting format follows a standard noncontroversial structure. The story ledes with the charges, then segues to the Trump defense (his tweets and Huckabee Sanders press conference pointing fingers elsewhere), and continues on to recount the details of Papadopoulos’s interacting with the Russians and an overview of Manafort’s ties to Russia. The article is written to provide detail for people who may not have read any Russia-related news before today.

So where’s the liberal bias?

Well, there’s not many ways to report this in a light that Trump would approve of. That itself is the “bias.”

But more concretely, the article also contains an infographic near the top. The link, “Here’s what we know so far about Team Trump’s ties to Russian interests” has icons of the many Trump associates and Russian associates and how they are linked. When setting the tone of an article on new indictments, a graphic like this can be a powerful persuader that there is a lot of guilt.

“Innocent until proven guilty” a Fox pundit reminded us today. Which leads to our counterpoint…


Fox News

To Fox’s credit, they have devoted significant coverage to the event today. While other networks are giving wall-to-wall attention, Fox has deviated on their broadcasts by interspersing news on Russia with reports on NFL players kneeling, new hamburger emojis, and other non-Russia news. Manafort’s arrest is major, but not receiving the universal attention of other sources.

Part of the reason for this is that Fox has used Trump’s tweets or White House press conferences as the foundation for any news story on Russia. Therefore, viewers are heavily conditioned to believing that the whole matter is a distraction, a witch hunt, insignificant, and even a hoax.

Arresting three Trump aides upsets that narrative. But as of now, Fox is reporting the events and they are the headline.

Here is the front page of Fox from Monday afternoon:

Fox News Manafort 10.30.17

Notice the sub-stories are summaries of Trump’s tweets. There is an Op-Ed that serves to distance Trump from Manafort.

The main story, “Manafort, top aide plead not guilty to Mueller probe charges; judge sets $10m bond” adopts the same tenor. The story is quick to point out that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government.

Fox stories always have good guys and bad guys. Who is the good guy in this case though? We find out soon. Instead of then delving into context, the Fox story chooses to include a quote from one of the defense attornies requesting that the press respect the privacy of the clients. Ah – a dig at the media from the Manafort/Gates lawyers. The media is the frequent villain in Fox reportage, so viewers will be quick to glean that subtle drawing of lines.

The story quickly wraps with three paragraphs on the charges and how much Manafort made.


Where is the division?

We all agree on the facts which is an infrequent event. The media all agrees this is a matter worthy of attention.

The division emerges when considering the context of the news. Non-Fox readers have been clued into Mueller’s investigation for months. To them, this is the first domino to fall. There will be more. And this is a matter of paramount importance. It could lead to impeachment and a rejection of everything Trump stands for.

Fox readers have been receiving updates that indicate this whole investigation is a distraction. Today’s news does not seriously change that perception. Fox analysts have pointed out that everybody here is innocent until proven guilty, and that Manafort’s time on the campaign was not referenced in the indictment. This is one of those “nothing-burgers” that Trump spokespeople keep referencing.


What can be done?

Don’t take for granted that everyone agrees this is a serious matter. The President’s associates are being investigated for working with a prime adversary of the United States. That sounds serious. But what if every news report you received said it was all a distraction. The subtext of the whole investigation is that people, the media, Democrats, the FBI, Mueller, do not like Trump because he is in DC to shake things up.

You can argue the wrongness of a viewpoint, but acknowledge it exists. Then articulate why this is important. If it is not important, than argue that.

Then engage. Today’s action is small. Calling Congress won’t speed up or end Mueller’s investigation. But share your reasoned opinion. Trump has shown a willingness to incite division no matter the costs, so use reason and understanding of other viewpoints to talk with others about why you think this issue is important (or not).

Engage with sympathetic family/friends if that helps iron out your reasoning. Or engage with other viewpoints if you can do so while avoiding hysteria and divisiveness.

This investigation will unfold in many layers. Aim to unite. Share your interactions with us.

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