Previously published at GBH News. This is ostensibly a column about the Steele dossier. But it’s really a column about the media — or, rather, what we mean when we talk about “the media.”
You remember the Steele dossier, right? Just before Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in 2017, we learned that intelligence officials had briefed both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama about a report that contained some lurid accusations. The most famous: that there was a video of Trump consorting with prostitutes in a Russian hotel room, which became known far and wide as “the pee tape.”
The dossier, we learned, had been compiled at the behest of Trump’s opponents for the Republican presidential nomination and later on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent, arrived on the scene at some point after it became a Clinton operation.
Now that special counsel John Durham, appointed by then-Attorney General Bill Barr in the waning days of the Trump administration, has indicted a crucial source and thus discredited the dossier, we are being subjected to some serious handwringing over the media’s credulous reporting.
Sara Fischer of Axios called it “one of the most egregious journalistic errors in modern history.” Writing in The New York Times, Bill Grueskin of the Columbia Journalism School lamented that “so many [journalists] were taken in so easily because the dossier seemed to confirm what they already suspected.” Needless to say, Fox News has been having a field day.
But there’s a huge problem with the narrative that the Steele dossier drove the story that Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with the Russians, and that the media pushed it in order to destroy Trump’s presidency: that’s not what happened. Or, to be more precise, a few media outlets pushed it, but more didn’t. And most serious people understood from the beginning that the dossier comprised raw intelligence, some of which might be true, some of which almost certainly wasn’t, and some of which probably consisted of outright disinformation.
CNN, the first outlet to report that Trump and Obama had been briefed, left out any details in its initial story even though it had the 35-page dossier in hand. BuzzFeed News, which remains the only major news organization to publish the full dossier (a mistake, as I said at the time), called it “unverified” and noted that it included “some clear errors.” The New York Times reported that the dossier was “unsubstantiated” and “generated by political operatives seeking to derail Mr. Trump’s candidacy.” The Washington Post: “unconfirmed” and “unsubstantiated.”
To be fair, these articles also said that the allegations contained therein might be true, and that the intelligence officials who briefed the two presidents were taking them seriously. But that’s just accurate reporting.
By the time the dossier was made public, we already knew that Trump’s then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, had vociferously denied he’d held a meeting in Prague with Russian operatives. But as the national security blogger Marcy Wheeler noted in a Columbia Journalism Review podcast last week, at the same time Cohen was telling the truth about the Prague meeting, he was also lying about meeting with Russian officials regarding a deal to build a Trump tower and lying about paying off women to keep quiet about their sexual liaisons with Trump. (How can you tell Cohen isn’t lying? When he’s not talking.) Wheeler, I should point out, has been casting doubt on the Steele dossier for a long time, so she’s hardly an apologist for the media.
Were there some media outlets that irresponsibly ran with the Steele dossier? Of course. On the CJR podcast, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, who’s been indefatigable in his efforts to debunk the dossier, cited MSNBC, CNN and the McClatchy newspapers. Grueskin pointed to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and McClatchy.
To which I would respond that MSNBC and CNN’s prime-time lineups consist of liberal talk shows aimed at keeping their viewers riled up so they won’t change the channel. They are certainly more careful with the facts than Fox News, but they are hardly the journalistic gold standard. I don’t think I ever saw McClatchy’s reporting at the time, and I don’t believe it made its way very far up the journalistic food chain. The Washington Post recently corrected and removed parts of two articles after Durham announced the indictment, thus making it clear that its sourcing had been wrong.
But how important was the Steele dossier to our understanding of Trump’s relationship with Russia? Not very, I would argue. Over the weekend, CNN.com published a lengthy overview by Marshall Cohen showing that the FBI began its investigation before it had any knowledge of the dossier. Cohen also reported that the dossier was not used as the basis for any part of the investigation except a probe into the activities of a minor Trump operative named Carter Page.
And let’s not forget that ties between the Trump campaign and the Russians were right out in the open. Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign officials met with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in Manhattan after being promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The Mueller report found that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had multiple contacts with Russian agents. WikiLeaks, almost certainly under Russian influence by 2016, released emails that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee to damage the Clinton campaign — and Trump publicly expressed the hope that more of her emails would be dumped into public view. And on and on. Given all this, the Steele dossier was just one piece of the puzzle, and not an especially important one. I mean, come on. Trump engaging in water sports with prostitutes? Did anyone ever really believe that?
Which brings me back to the point I want to make about the media: there really isn’t any such thing as “the media.” Rather, there are a myriad of outlets, and at any given time some are acting responsibly and some are acting irresponsibly. Pointing to something that Rachel Maddow said as evidence of media malfeasance makes no more sense than blaming the media because Tucker Carlson used his Fox News streaming program to push the lie that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a false-flag operation. No, I’m not equating Maddow with Carlson. She tries to be careful with the facts, whereas Carlson just makes stuff up. But she’s the host of an opinionated talk show, not an investigative reporter.
“The ‘mainstream media’ — I’m going to stop putting that in quotes, but keep imagining that I’m saying it sarcastically — is probably made up of several thousand individuals and then a three-figure number of institutions,” the conservative commentator Jonathan V. Last wrote for The Bulwark recently. “At any given moment, on any given story, some number of these people and institutions will communicate facts that are eventually understood to be misleading or incorrect. Some of these people and institutions are better at their jobs than others.
“The point is that the MSM universe is so large that you’re always going to be able to cherry-pick examples to support the notion that ‘they’ are feeding ‘us’ false narratives.”
Most of the media handled the Steele dossier responsibly right from the start, even if much of what it contained turned out to be even less credible than it originally appeared. A few journalists and commentators got carried away. And, in any case, the dossier played only a minor role in the investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia.
Attempts to conflate it into more than that are not only silly but play into Trumpworld’s lies that the entire collusion story was a “hoax.” It was not a hoax, and I suspect we haven’t heard the last of it.