Erik Wemple: Are the sites who reported false information about the Steele dossier going to correct the record?

(Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

Erik Wemple has really done an exemplary job of holding onto the receipts for all the media’s sunny claims about the Steele dossier. With the recent indictment of Igor Danchenko, Wemple is once again pointing out that the people who hyped the document don’t seem nearly as eager to correct the record. His article today covers some of the same ground I covered here, such as the fact that one of Steele’s sources turned out to be a Democratic strategist at a PR firm named Charles Dolan Jr. But Wemple also points to another one of Steele’s alleged sources, a man named Sergei Millian.

The Wall Street Journal, ABC News and the Washington Post have all previously reported that Millian, the former president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, was a source for “some of the most explosive parts” of the Steele dossier. Here’s how the WSJ reported it in a story headlined, “Key Claims in Trump Dossier Said to Come From Head of Russian-American Business Group.

Some of the most explosive parts of a dossier containing unverified allegations that President Donald Trump had secret ties to Russian leaders originated from the Belarus-born head of a Russian-American business group, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Sergei Millian, a 38-year-old American citizen who has claimed he helped market Trump properties to Russian buyers, wasn’t a direct source for the 35-page dossier, this person said. Rather, his statements about the Trump-Russia relationship were relayed by at least one third party to the British ex-spy who prepared the dossier, the person said.

But it turns out that wasn’t true. The new indictment claims Danchenko never spoke to Millian. Danchenko apparently fabricated the claims of a phone call. So given that the previous stories and the indictment can’t both be correct, Wemple asks all three outlets that published those previous stories the obvious question: Will the stories be corrected/retracted? None of the sites, not even his own, would answer the question:

The Wall Street Journal on Friday published a story noting that the indictment contradicted the newspaper’s original reporting on Millian. “We will continue to follow the Danchenko case closely and report updates as they develop,” a Journal spokesperson said in a statement. We asked the Journal if it intended to add an editor’s note/correction/retraction to the January 2017 story. A spokesperson declined to elaborate.

The Post also covered the indictment’s implications for its previous story. Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said in a statement: “The indictment raises new questions about whether Sergei Millian was a source for the Steele dossier, as The Post reported in 2017. We are continuing to report on the origins and ramifications of the document.” In a follow-up inquiry, we asked whether The Post is reviewing its previous work on Millian and whether it would publish its findings. A spokesperson for the newspaper declined to comment beyond Buzbee’s statement.

ABC News issued this statement: “We are reviewing this in light of new developments.”

News organizations may face a mismatch as they place their reporting alongside the indictment. Where the indictment relies on emails, interviews and other powerful investigative tools, the Journal’s initial scoop cited a single anonymous source. The sourcing for the The Post’s reporting about Millian’s alleged conversation is unclear, while ABC News attributes its primary assertion to “a person familiar with the raw intelligence provided to the FBI.”

What should happen next, as Wemple points out, is all three outlets should go back to their source and ask him or her to explain what they claimed in light of this new information. If they can’t back up their previous claims then “there’s only one option: Retract the stories.”

Wemple is right but I wonder if the outlets really will redact the stories or will instead prefer to let them ride. After all, retracting a bogus story about the Steele dossier is bound to be a big black eye for these media outlets at this point, further evidence they were practicing “resistance journalism” during the Trump years. They’ll want to avoid that admission if at all possible. And the fact that Erik Wemple seems to be the only person even asking about a retraction is a good indication that most of the media really doesn’t care.