Four years later, getting to the bottom of the Steele dossier

The alleged Moscow hotel room where it all didn’t happen. Photo (cc) 2017 by quapan.

The New York Times on Sunday published an excerpt from “Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube and the Rise of Private Spies,” by former Times reporter Barry Meier. The excerpt makes explicit something that has long been obvious: that the much-ballyhooed Steele dossier contained little that was actually true.

You remember the Steele dossier, right? Compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele as opposition research on Donald Trump, first paid for by anti-Trump Republican interests and later by the Hillary Clinton campaign, the dossier contained all kinds of salacious details, including an alleged romp in a Russian hotel room involving Trump, prostitutes, urine and a bed the Obamas had once slept in.

The value Meier brings to the tale, other than a wealth of details, is a reality check: How could Steele, who had been hired by the private intelligence firm Fusion GPS, know so much that had eluded everyone else? Here’s a particularly telling passage:

Over dinner in Moscow in 2019, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, offered her take on the matter. Ms. Veselnitskaya had worked alongside Mr. Simpson when she represented a Russian-owned real estate firm called Prevezon Holdings and said she regarded him as a skilled investigator. [Glenn Simpson, a former journalist, is the co-founder of Fusion GPS.] As for Mr. Steele and the dossier, she had nothing but contempt.

“If you take this fake stuff for real, then you just have to be brave enough to believe, to completely dismiss all your special services, all your intelligence staff,” she said rapidly through an interpreter. She suggested how odd it was that all those people and agencies “were never able to find out what that talented person found out without ever leaving his room.”

No kidding. Meier also reminds us that when the identity of Steele’s informant was finally revealed last year, he turned out to be less than impressive — Igor Danchenko, a Russian-born lawyer living in the United States whose “contacts within Russia appeared to be not Kremlin A-listers but instead childhood friends, college buddies or drinking pals.”

As Trump was taking office in January 2017, CNN reported that both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama had been briefed on the Steele Dossier’s contents, giving it a shiny aura of believability. BuzzFeed News went one step further, actually publishing the entire dossier. As I said at the time, I thought BuzzFeed made the wrong call, explaining:

The documents reflect raw intelligence of the sort that is often wrong. Apparently a number of news organizations have had this material for quite some time, and none of them published because they could not verify their truthfulness…. Essentially BuzzFeed played right into the narrative being pushed by Trump and his supporters — that the media cannot be trusted and are out to get him by promoting “fake news.”

Interestingly, the editor of BuzzFeed News at that time was Ben Smith, who is now the Times’ media columnist.

As Meier suggests, Trump was so flagrantly corrupt that journalists were willing to believe anything about his ties with Russia. The trouble is that not every bad thing you hear about a bad person is true.

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The David Brooks matter comes to an end (probably)

I just want to put a “-30-” on this. The New York Times reported earlier today that disclosures will be added to David Brooks’ past columns in which he had a conflict of interest (background here). He’s resigned from his paid position at the Aspen Institute. Most important, I think, is this:

Mr. Brooks had received approval to take the paid position at Aspen in 2018, according to Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman, but the current editors of the opinion section did not know about the arrangement.

Presumably this means that Brooks’ outside work was approved by former editorial-page editor James Bennet, who apparently saw nothing wrong with Brooks’ writing about Facebook and other Aspen funders without disclosing that to readers. Bennet is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Brooks should have been more forthcoming than he was in his modified limited hangout on the “PBS NewsHour” Friday night. But barring any further disclosures, this story feels like it’s over.

And kudos to Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News for their dogged reporting.

David Brooks addresses the Weave controversy

Move ahead to 8:48

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed the Weave matter Friday evening durng his regular appearance on the “PBS NewsHour” — which places Judy Woodruff and company several steps ahead of the Times when it comes to transparency.

Brooks was nervous through the segment, which began with his usual back-and-forth with Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart. At the end, in the clip that I’ve bookmarked above (start at 8:48 if it doesn’t happen automatically), Woodruff gave Brooks a chance to explain himself. I thought he seemed sincerely interested in trying to set things right, but that he wasn’t entirely forthcoming.

He began by saying, “First, we did totally disclose it,” referring to his salary at the Aspen Institute, where he runs Weave, a civic-engagement initiative. Later, he seemed to say that what he meant was he’d disclosed it to his superiors at the Times. Certainly his readers and viewers didn’t know it.

He also said he had “not meaningfully written” about any of Weave’s funders, including Facebook, even though BuzzFeed News — which broke the story — has presented evidence to the contrary. Nor did he mention a post he wrote for Facebook’s blog in which he sang the praises of Facebook Groups, also revealed by BuzzFeed.

“It has not affected my journalism,” he insisted. Nevertheless, he conceded that his critics have a point and said he’ll be making changes over the next week.

How will this end? I suspect the Times will announce a policy pertaining to all of their in-house opinion journalists, and that will be the end of it — especially if Brooks can prove that management knew about his Weave salary.

Earlier:

Update: BuzzFeed News reporter Craig Silverman rebuts Brooks point by point in this Twitter thread:

Update II: Brooks has resigned from his position at the Aspen Institute as more conflicts of interest surface. BuzzFeed News reports.

The New York Times has a David Brooks problem

David Brooks. Photo (cc) 2011 by the Miller Center.

The New York Times’ David Brooks problem has ratcheted up from “uh, oh” to “holy cow.”

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday that Brooks, a prominent Times columnist, is getting paid for his work at Weave, a civic-engagement project that’s part of the Aspen Institute. Among Weave’s funders is Facebook.

A week earlier, BuzzFeed reported that Brooks had written a post on Facebook’s blog singing the praises of Facebook Groups without letting his editors at the Times know about it. That was bad enough. But now that there’s money involved, the Times is going to have to take action.

It’s unclear whether the Times knows he’s been getting a second salary. If they do, then perhaps Brooks can avoid being disciplined. But whether they know or not, what about the rest of us? Every time Brooks writes about an organization in which he has a financial stake, that needs to be appended to the bottom of his column. Needless to say, the problem with that is it would look ridiculous. I’m sure the Times doesn’t want to run a piece by one of its own staff columnists that reveals he’s in the tank to someone else.

As someone who has worked in opinion journalism for many years, and who teaches it, I feel like I have a stake in calling out Brooks’ misbehavior. I stress to my students repeatedly that we have the same ethical obligations as straight-news reporters. We don’t make political contributions. We don’t put signs on our lawns. And we maintain our independence.

One of the four tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “act independently.” The code explains further: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Brooks’ conflict seems avoidable enough, but at the very least he should have disclosed it.

A summary of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The Elements of Journalism” has this to say about independence and opinion journalism:

Journalistic independence, write Kovach and Rosenstiel, is not neutrality. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform — not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, journalists must avoid straying into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.

I assume the Times is going to take this seriously. It may be bad for Brooks that the Times’ opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, is just a few weeks into her job and may want to send a message to the rest of her staff.

But I’m troubled by a statement BuzzFeed got from Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. Silverman and Mac write: “Murphy said other Times columnists have roles outside the paper. When asked for an example, she cited Paul Krugman, who was a professor of economics at Princeton and is currently a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.”

Seriously? Krugman is not a columnist who scored an academic gig. He’s a professor who was so highly regarded that the Times hired him as a columnist. The Times is his second job (or was; he seems to be semi-retired now), just as the Aspen Institute is Brooks’ second. And everyone knows about Krugman’s academic background. It was hardly a secret when he won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

I hope this can be resolved. Brooks is reviled in many circles, but I value his work. He often shows himself to be out of touch, and he can drive me crazy sometimes. But at his best he’s very good, and I’d hate to see him go, or set up a Substack.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart kick the week’s news around on the “PBS NewsHour” tomorrow evening. Brooks should address it.

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