Erik Wemple is now on part 10 of his series of articles about the media’s handling of the Steele Dossier. I’ve had my disagreements with Wemple in the past but the work he’s done on this topic is exemplary. As a conservative who wonders why progressives in the media never get held accountable for things they say that later turn out not to be true, Wemple is doing his level best to restore my faith in the major media with this series.
Last month, Wemple put together a devastating account of Rachel Maddow’s Steele dossier obsession. If you haven’t read that, it’s worth your time. Today, he published a roundup of “sunny remarks” about the dossier by various figures at MSNBC, CNN, and elsewhere. He asked each reporter to comment on their past expressions of confidence about the dossier in light of the findings in the IG report. The responses to Wemple’s inquiries can be divided into three groups: Those who didn’t respond (at least not on the record), those who regretted their past comments, and those who defended their past comments. Here’s a list of the reporters who didn’t respond to Wemple’s questions (on the record):
- MSNBC’s Rachel “Maddow declined to comment on the record.”
- CNN’s Alisyn Camerota “Declined to comment on the record.”
- CNN’s John Berman “Declined to comment on the record.”
- Former State Department official Jonathan Winer (appearing on CNN) “did not return a request for comment.”
- Former federal prosecutor Paul Butler (appearing on MSNBC) offered “No response to a request for comment.”
- CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd…Wemple lists this as “Awaiting a reply.”
- Journalist Jacob Weisberg (appearing on MSNBC)…Wemple writes “Attempts to secure a comment from Weisberg have been unsuccessful.”
- Journalist Natasha Bertrand (appearing on MSNBC) “Bertrand did not respond to requests for comment.”
It’s interesting how many of these journalists who were part of the pro-dossier chorus on left-leaning networks suddenly have nothing to say about it. To their credit, some of the people who did respond expressed regret or at least admitted to reassessing their past comments:
- Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote an email saying, “I’m still working through the IG report and doing some reporting, trying to decide what, if anything, is still credible in the Steele dossier.” The work to answer that question has already been done and the answer is “not much.” But at least he answered.
- MSNBC’s Howard Fineman gave a solid response which said in part, “In retrospect — and after much more digging — it’s clear that the whole emergence and effect of the dossier should be a warning to us all: bad oppo + zealous feds = bad journalism, erosion of the rule of law and threats to civil liberties.” Fineman also took a swipe at Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith: “at least initially, the press deserves more credit for steering clear of it than the feds! Remember, it took Ben Smith and BuzzFeed to put it out there in January 2017, after the dossier had been essentially bootstrapped into a semblance of credibility by the fact that the feds already had used it!”
- Reporter Daniel Lippman (appearing on CNN) claimed he couldn’t remember why he said what he did and then blamed the NY Times: “As far as what I told CNN, they were a long time ago and while I don’t recall my exact frame of mind at they time, this NYT story is a point of reference for my comments.”
The reporters defending their prior statements about the dossier included CNN’s Manu Raju, who didn’t defend himself but had a CNN flak do it for him, and MSNBC Nicole Wallace. But the standout has to be Jane Mayer who wrote a lengthy and favorable profile of Steele for the New Yorker in 2018. Here’s her response:
Steele’s a convenient political piñata but he was prescient in warning anyone who would listen that Russian state actors were attempting to interfere in the 2016 presidential election specifically in favor of Trump, and in an effort to undermine NATO and lift anti-Russian sanctions,” writes Mayer in an email. “The New Yorker’s coverage carefully quoted naysayers about Steele as well as defenders, and identified whatever flaws were known in the dossier 18 months ago, as well as its strengths. Since then a number of the details in the dossier have either been denied, or are yet to be confirmed, as Horowitz’s report reflects, but several of Steele’s major concerns, including that the FBI was employing a double standard by publicizing its investigation of Hillary Clinton while concealing its investigation of the Trump campaign from voters, have been borne out. So overall, it’s a complex and nuanced picture, more suitable to long-form journalism than television talk shows.
It sounds like Mayer hasn’t really absorbed the gist of the IG report yet. The takeway was not that a lot of nuance is required to properly view the dossier. The takeaway was that the dossier was not believed by the FBI and was not even believed by Steele’s own primary source who described many of the stories as rumors that flowed when people were drinking at the bar.
Read the full piece for all of the details of who said what and when. Again, I don’t think the individual comments are earth-shatteringly important at this point. What’s important is that someone at a major outlet is connecting the dots and pointing out how a pair of news networks irresponsibly inflated this balloon for months because they wanted it to be true.
To be clear, Wemple doesn’t attribute motive to the dossier chorus. I’m doing so because we all know that’s what is going on here. At a minimum, we can say there was a booming market for Russia, Russia, Russia on television and the people and networks above are a few of the ones who rushed to fill orders without knowing the facts.