Will mainstream media face a "reckoning" over Steele dossier promotion?

Naaaaah. But in defense of Axios, the utter collapse of the Steele dossier should create a reckoning for the news industry’s “epic fail.”

Since that reckoning would have to come from the same editors who shamelessly flogged the dossier as a national scandal for the last four years, I’m not holding my breath:


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. …

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.

They “corrected and removed large portions” of two whole articles, eh? Wow! Who got fired for writing them in the first place? Who got fired for making the editorial decisions to run them — and many more pieces driven by the Steele dossier? Did the Washington Post even demote anyone for falling for an obvious piece of campaign oppo-research propaganda, let alone help turn it into a national hysteria over Russian infiltration of our election system?


Wemple, who was an early and persistent skeptic of this reporting, also checks on the “reckoning” status within CNN, which was one of the first news organizations to sell the dossier as genuine intel. Here’s how the reckoning is going at the banana-peel outlet:

Narrow though the reporting was, it served as a springboard for broader expressions of confidence in Steele’s work. “CNN, by the way, has corroborated some elements of that dossier,” said anchor Wolf Blitzer in June 2017. “A lot has been been verified,” said CNN anchor John Vause in January 2018. If nothing else, the dossier demonstrates how undisciplined cable chatter can amplify a tightly worded print story.

Whatever the distortions, “corroboration” is a poor word to associate with the dossier. As the Erik Wemple Blog has noted many times, the December 2019 report of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz indicated that the FBI had concluded the dossier was a mostly a compendium of inaccurate, unconfirmed and already public claims. The Danchenko indictment contextualizes the flimsiness, alleging that Danchenko fabricated a conversation with a source and relied on a Democratic operative for a claim that ended up in the document.

In light of the recent developments, we asked CNN if it still stands by its “corroboration” reporting and, if so, to which specific parts of the dossier does that apply? We received no response. So, we’ll have to repeat the statement that the network provided for our 2020 story: “CNN stands by our reporting. Our approach to the dossier has been consistent since day one. CNN only reported details when they were corroborated, part of a government filing, or publicly discussed by officials or those mentioned.”

Consistent? Yes, to its credit, CNN covered the Danchenko indictment with a smattering of reports last Thursday. There was also a CNN.com piece. By contrast, the “corroboration” story of February 2017 received saturation coverage at a network programmed to hype all Trump-related items. That brand of asymmetry helps explain why many people mistrust CNN.


Even Axios’ tally by Sara Fischer belies the “reckoning” frame:

  • Buzzfeed, which first published the dossier and has it still up, won’t take it down.
  • Ben Smith, former Buzzfeed editor and now a columnist at the New York Times who made the decision to run it: “My view on the logic of publishing hasn’t changed.”
  • MSNBC: No comment.
  • Mother Jones and David Corn, who began reporting allegations from the dossier before the 2016 election: No plans to correct the record.
  • Wall Street Journal pledged to follow the story, and … that’s all.

The Steele dossier was indeed an “epic fail” by national media outlets, just as the Hillary Clinton campaign had hoped it would be before the election. The idea that these same media outlets will hold its personnel accountable for this atrocious campaign of yellow journalism even after its exposure as manipulated trash is entirely risible. Media outlets don’t care about credibility any longer — they care about narrative. And they’re certainly not going to promote a narrative of media bias, even after having it exposed as the blunt truth in this episode.

That narrative strategy isn’t why many people mistrust CNN. It’s why most people mistrust the news industry altogether, including Wemple’s platform, even if it’s no fault of Wemple’s. When heads roll over epic fails such as this one, then maybe consumers might rethink that position. But as long as “accountability” only amounts to a couple of edits and the Otter apology (NSFW), media outlets will get all the trust they have earned.


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