The Atlantic has a piece up this morning looking back over the landscape of the media’s Russia fixation for the past two and a half years. Author David A. Graham concludes, in light of the resolution of the collusion narrative this month by Robert Mueller, that the “original sin” in this story was Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the unverified Steele dossier:
The BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith told me Thursday that he doesn’t regret the decision to publish it in the first place—and that the ramifications now are beside the point. “Our responsibility to the readers is to share with them what we know, not to game out the political consequences of every story,” he said.
But the dossier set the stage for the political response to investigations to come—inflating expectations in the public, moving the goalposts for Trump in a way that has fostered bad behavior, and tainting the press’s standing. Publishing the dossier at the time seemed like a mistake to many people, including me, and the aftermath has only confirmed that judgment…
While most responsible news organizations approached the document warily, sidestepping the most lurid and unsupported claims, the allegations had already been injected into the discourse. Outlets that wouldn’t have published them in their original form (including some outlets that had reviewed the dossier and decided against publishing it) began to cover the claims as a meta-story—Here’s a thing people are talking about—which of course only drove people to talk about them more. Improbably, pee tape became a part of the national lexicon. There’s plenty of blame to spread around the press for hyping the dossier, but its publication was the original sin.
In Graham’s view the publication of the dossier is disappointing because it made everything that was discovered later—the Trump Tower meeting, the plans for a Trump tower in Russia, etc—seem pale by comparison to the salacious but unproven details in the dossier. Graham thinks it’s basically Buzzfeed’s fault that Trump’s team is claiming vindication now when they ought to be hanging their heads in shame.
While I agree with Graham about the irresponsibility of Buzzfeed publishing the dossier (and said so at the time), I think he’s wrong to suggest Buzzfeed is responsible for letting down the broader effort to sack Trump. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of the truth. Buzzfeed’s decision to publish genuine fake news is best seen as perhaps the most egregious example of a trend that has continued ever since. There have been numerous stories published and then retracted by allegedly more responsible outlets in the years since. The phenomenon of overreach with regard to Trump may have peaked with Buzzfeed but it didn’t start or end there.
Graham also gets some other things wrong:
David French, writing in National Review this week, accurately identifies the release of the dossier as a pivotal moment, but he gets his diagnosis only partly right. French, like some others on the right, lays the responsibility on the Hillary Clinton campaign. “The dossier, however, in its sheer negative impact on American public life, may be her most infamous ‘achievement,’” he writes. “Her campaign—and ultimately Hillary herself—bears responsibility for the chaos it sowed.” There are several problems with this. First, the dossier originated as research commissioned by the conservative Washington Free Beacon, only later to be taken up by the Clinton campaign. And campaigns commission all types of opposition research. From what’s publicly known, the Clinton team didn’t dump the dossier during the campaign, and top Clinton officials say they hadn’t read it until BuzzFeed published it.
The claim that the Free Beacon helped fund the dossier has been repeated so many times and corrected just as many and yet it persists. It’s true that the Free Beacon hired Fusion GPS to investigate Trump during the primaries. But they dropped out of that arrangement before Fusion GPS hired Christopher Steele. He wrote the dossier while working for a law firm funded by the DNC and the Clinton campaign. They funded the entire dossier, not the Free Beacon.
Also, Steele himself was talking to reporters about his dossier prior to the election. The Clinton camp can claim they had no knowledge of that but it’s not an accident that this whole arrangement was set up through an attorney to protect any internal communications about it.
Buzzfeed was wrong to publish the unverified dossier but even if they hadn’t done so, the Russia collusion story would have taken off on cable (Maddow) and in print. Someone else would have found an excuse to leak it sooner or later because so many people on the left wanted it, or something like it, to be true. The disappointment at the outcome of the Mueller report people are feeling now would have been nearly the same. The problem was never just this document it was the left wanting to tear down Trump by any means necessary. Remember the “not my president” meme that circulated after his election? That was the animating force in its raw form. The dossier was ultimately just a handy excuse to justify the feeling that the righteous people had unfairly lost an election to the deplorables.