A reckoning is hitting news organizations for years-old coverage of the 2017 Steele dossier, after the document’s primary source was charged with lying to the FBI.
Why it matters: It’s one of the most egregious journalistic errors in modern history, and the media’s response to its own mistakes has so far been tepid.
Outsized coverage of the unvetted document drove a media frenzy at the start of Donald Trump’s presidency that helped drive a narrative of collusion between former President Trump and Russia.
It also helped drive an even bigger wedge between former President Trump and the press at the very beginning of his presidency.
Driving the news: In wake of the key source’s arrest and further reporting on the situation, The Washington Post on Friday corrected and removed large portions of two articles.
- To The Post’s credit, its media critic, Erik Wemple, has written at length about the mistakes made by The Post and other media outlets in their coverage of the dossier.
BuzzFeed News, which made waves in 2017 by publishing the entire dossier, says it has no plans to take the document down. It’s still online, accompanied by a note that says “The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.”
- Ben Smith, who was BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief at the time and is now a media columnist at The New York Times, told Axios, “My view on the logic of publishing hasn’t changed.”
- BuzzFeed defended the decision in a 2018 lawsuit by arguing that because the FBI opened an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, the dossier itself was newsworthy, whatever the merits of its contents turned out to be. It won that case.
Other outlets that gave the document outsized coverage have so far been less forthcoming.
- CNN and MSNBC did not respond to requests for comment about whether they planned to revisit or correct any of their coverage around the dossier
- Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn began reporting about the dossier prior to the 2016 election. Asked by Wemple whether he planned to correct the record, Corn said,” My priority has been to deal with the much larger topic of Russia’s undisputed attack and Trump’s undisputed collaboration with Moscow’s cover-up.”
- Corn did not respond to a request to speak on the record with Axios.
- The Wall Street Journal told Axios, “We’re aware of the serious questions raised by the allegations and continue to report and to follow the investigation closely.”
- Axios was among the outlets that did not publish the dossier or original reporting based on its contents.
What to watch: The Steele screwup will undoubtedly cause an even bigger rift in trust between Democrats and Republicans.