The mangled history of mainstream media and the Steele dossier
Former FBI Directors James Comey (left) and Robert Mueller (middle), and ex-MI6 spy Christopher Steele (right). Images via screengrab.

Inevitably, this week, we started to see the news media backing off – even adjusting their files – over stories published about the so-called Steele dossier a couple of years ago. The effect is to force renewed thinking about links between Donald Trump and Russia.

The reason for reconsideration about what was said at the time is the recent indictment of Igor Danchenko, a Russian analyst facing charges of lying to the FBI over information he supplied for the dossier by former British intelligence Christopher Steele and the FBI that was used as justification for initial inquiries into the all-things-Russia links with the Donald Trump 2016 campaign.

There are two truths here: First, the press was careful to say that large portions of the dossier were unverified. And the case outlined by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III showed lots of contact between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.

The 39-page grand jury indictment of Danchenko for making false statements was the result of more than two years of investigation by a special counsel, John H. Durham. The indictment – there has been no trial yet – is being hailed among conservatives as definitive in defending Trump from any eventual conclusions about the degree to which The Former Guy colluded, cooperated or otherwise was open to arrangements with the Russians.

So, this week, just as the media herd had flocked to the story of the Steele dossier, now the media, herd-like, is taking a step back.

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Nevertheless, besides any overreach by the FBI, there are two essential truths here: First, press outlets have been careful throughout to say that large portions of the dossier have remained unverified. And second, the case outlined by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III outlined lots of contact and arrangements among the Trump campaign and transition team members and Russian operatives.

Adjusting Archived Articles

The Washington Post, Politico and others are adjusting stories in their electronic files to reflect yet more doubt on references to the Steele dossier, first published by BuzzFeed in January 2017. These include rewrites to show new questions or newly created omissions in already published stories to fit with new information.

The dossier contained a range of allegations about candidate Trump that were picked up and amplified in news reports, talk shows and social media.

Steele himself last month offered interviews defending his 17-memo compilation — paid for first by Republican, then-Democratic political opponents of Trump—as apolitical. Last year, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found errors in the FBI review of data and its use in obtaining special wiretapping authority for a Trump associate. One FBI lawyer pleaded guilty to a criminal charge.

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Former Attorney General William P. Barr appointed Durham to lead a wider investigation into the origins of the Russia connections. That inquiry has produced little until this recent indictment.

How the media acted in all this is now the new focus in articles in:

  • Politico, where press critic Jack Schafer discusses media transparency
  • The Washington Post, where media critic Eric Wemple has extensively looked at media coverage of the Steele dossier over time
  • The New York Times opinion essays, where Bill Grueskin, a Columbia journalism professor, considers the herd response of a too-believing media
  • Also, columnist Bret Stephens, an avowed conservative thinker, finds consistent fault with both the FBI and the media for lack of questions.

Most of the important claims in the dossier have not been proven, and some have been refuted.

But No Exoneration

Still, Wemple, among others, conclude that just because all that Steele gathered, including the notorious reports of a Trump pee tape, didn't pan out didn't mean that there wasn't plenty of fishy Russian business during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Despite all the Trump and Republican denials – containing lies and misstatements themselves, the Mueller Report detailed multiple instances of what would constitute bad, even potentially criminal behavior in that presidential campaign and the weeks following the 2016 election.

Trump has never disowned his special regard for Russian leader Vladimir Putin and went to great lengths to align U.S. policies with what have comported well with Russian outlooks over a weakened NATO, concessions in the Middle East and a view toward international chaos that has advanced Russian interests. The Trump position, simply stated, remains all about himself, about America First thinking and disowning leadership in international cooperation.

For the media, the questions raised in the various essays over the dossier are about this industry's responsibility toward rigor and about accountability when there are errors. As columnist Schafer notes, accountability requires journalists to show how their work was flawed if they choose to correct or retract. The current archive changes instead rely on rewriting historical articles to reflect more current doubt – an endless process for sure if applied to all errors with political overtones.

If Danchenko is convicted of lying to Steele and then to the FBI, we must accept that sourcing media stories to those lies creates problems over just what to believe went on in the past. But even without those lies, we should not forget that the Muller Report outlined serious abuses, whether called collusion or cooperation, between an election campaign and a foreign foe.