Coverage of the Steele dossier is a dark time for US media


Americans don’t trust the news media, and there is no need to wonder why.

In a Gallup poll published in October, only 36% said they had a “great” or “fair amount” of trust in the media, which is the second lowest number of endorsements since the organization began recording these particular opinions in 1972.

Interestingly, the only time the media was rated less, according to Gallup, was in 2016, just before Donald Trump was elected president.

You don’t have to look any further than the famous “Steel File” to understand what is wrong with corporate media.

The brief, first published online in its entirety by the BuzzFeed website on January 10, 2017, 10 days before Trump took office, fueled a media frenzy over alleged collusion between the Trump campaign of 2016 and the Russians determined to influence the elections.

We now know that the dossier, with most of its content debunked and other parts never substantiated, was commissioned by the Hillary Clinton campaign and compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, who used Russian citizen Igor Danchenko as a source. Earlier this month, Danchenko was arrested and charged with five counts of lying to the FBI.

The lie dossier was used by the FBI to obtain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants to spy on Trump’s campaign.

For what it’s worth, disgraced former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said last year that he would not have signed a request for a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant had he had knowledge of issues related to the case.

That’s a pretty big “oops”.

Nevertheless, the dossier and the media hysteria it sparked plagued the new president even before he took office, and it lasted more than two years.

It wasn’t until the April 2019 release of Special Advisor Robert Mueller’s report that the country learned that there was no evidence of coordination or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian interests.

With Danchenko’s arrest, volumes of reporting by major news organizations have become hopelessly imperfect.

So now would be the time for the media to issue their own mass “oops” and set the record straight on the details they released from the now-discredited Steele dossier.

Only, they don’t seem to be in a hurry to do it.

McClatchy, owner of more than two dozen newspapers, still has to retract his mistaken story that Michael Cohen, then Trump’s lawyer, traveled to Prague to meet with Kremlin agents. He does not have.

CNN has been one of the leaders in hyperventilating on the contents of the case, and understandably gave little coverage to Danchenko’s arrest by comparison.

At one point, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota appeared to approve the entire file, telling Rep Jim Jordan, R-Ohio: “Your intelligence community has corroborated All the details.”

Needless to say, CNN is does not really burn the air with corrections or retractions of its first reports.

But the blame can be widespread.

On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow latched onto the thin assurance of her left-wing audience that nothing on the record had been “”refuted“, which is an embarrassing standard for a supposed news network. TV presenters should report what they know, not what they hope to be true.

Also on MSNBC, Nicole Wallace said of the case: “It might be dirty, but it’s not wrong. She repeated the weak argument that nothing was ‘disproved’, as if it was perfectly acceptable to report allegations that have not been verified.

For some journalists, the Steele dossier has borne fruit, bogus or not.

At the height of the journalistic mania were the New York Times and the Washington Post, which shared the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their work on the Trump-Russia story. For his part, Trump demanded that the price be canceled. As of this writing, this is not the case.

And Ben Smith, who as editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed made the decision to publish the dossier in January 2017, has risen through the ranks of journalism and is now a columnist for The New York Times.

CNN reporter Natasha Bertrand, then with Business Insider, turned her embrace of the dossier into a contributor contract with MSNBC and boosted his career.

Axios, which had its own problem report on the file, weighed on the whole fiasco, writing, “This is one of the most egregious journalistic errors in modern history, and the media response to its own mistakes has so far been lukewarm.”

The Washington Post, to its moderate credit, has corrected and deleted parts of two articles from 2017 and 2019, admitting that he “can no longer rely on the accuracy” of large parts of the reports.

But for the most part, the national news media simply dutifully reported on Danchenko’s arrest, perhaps mentioning the damage done to the veracity of the case itself, and simply moved on.

The Steele dossier was a story that crept into national consciousness for more than the first half of Trump’s tenure. The media have gleefully reported its contents, even some of the most salacious articles, and passed them off as fact.

The constant firestorm hampered and distracted the administration as it battled the false narrative, which a cynical observer might conclude was the media’s intention.

There is enormous collective guilt to bear for dragging the entire country through a protracted episode that was almost entirely based on a central lie.

News organizations that reported details of the case – which could never be proven to be true because they were initially false – should take a close and public look at their editorial practices and decision-making processes.

And they should all be making headlines and making headlines that proclaim, “We were wrong.”

Offering a casual shrug and continuing as usual only compounds the problem: Americans don’t trust the media. And there are very good reasons for this.

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