Why It’s Still True That BuzzFeed Was Right to Publish the Steele Dossier
Even with its inaccuracies and suspect motives, the public needed to know what the dossier said.
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When BuzzFeed decided to publish the Steele Dossier on Trump’s ostensible Russian connections almost five years ago, I was one of relatively few people in journalism who defended the decision. Now, with much of the dossier discredited, I still think BuzzFeed made the right call, and I want to explain why.
The Steele Dossier wasn’t a reported scoop—it was a leaked document. If it had been an enterprise story, the issue of whether to publish should have centered around whether the story was accurate. Such a story would likely have borne a headline like “Trump Sex Tape Said to Fuel Possible Russian Blackmail,” and its publication would have been a black mark on the record of any editor, especially as it now seems possible that this particular tale was the creation of a Democratic-funded disinformation effort against Trump.
But that wasn’t the headline on the BuzzFeed story. The actual headline was “These Reports Allege Trump Has Deep Ties to Russia.” That’s an accurate summary of the dossier. And the story included a two-sentence subhed, the second sentence of which was, “The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.” Much of what the dossier contains, in fact, turned out not to be true—the “pee tape,” the Michael Cohen trip to Prague (although Christopher Steele, rather remarkably, still insists that part is true), other details.
Some of the gravamen of the dossier, though, is, in retrospect, right on target: people in the Trump campaign did knowingly work with the Russian government or its agents to discredit the Clinton campaign, Trump’s campaign manager and his first national security adviser did have improper contact with Russian interests. Just in case you’ve forgotten, Roger Stone (lying under oath to Congress), Paul Manafort (bank and tax fraud) and Michael Flynn (lying under penalty of perjury to the FBI) were all convicted of federal crimes and were all pardoned or had their sentences commuted by a self-serving Trump. (Michael Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying, but broke with Trumpian omerta, and so was not pardoned.)
But the truth of the dossier wasn’t the real issue confronting BuzzFeed editors. On the afternoon of January 10, 2017, 10 days before Trump’s inauguration, CNN reported that a two-page synopsis of the Steele Dossier, which it initially described as “classified documents,” had been presented to Trump and President Obama by the director of national intelligence, the FBI director, the CIA director and the director of the National Security Agency. (Actually, that detail of the CNN story was wrong—the four officials had agreed that FBI chief Jim Comey alone would do the deed with Trump.)
CNN noted that an October 2016 public letter from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to Comey had made a then-mysterious reference to “explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government,” and CNN now said that the dossier was the “explosive information” in question. David Corn of Mother Jones had quickly followed the Reid letter, and provided a good bit of detail on Steele’s work in a story published on Halloween, eight days before the election. Sen. John McCain, former Republican presidential nominee, war hero and Trump adversary, had, CNN noted, given the materials to the FBI director in December, but CNN also said that the Bureau had already had copies of much of the dossier. CNN declined to publish the dossier itself (a mistake, in my judgment) even though it spoke with what it described as “multiple high ranking intelligence, [Obama] administration, congressional and law enforcement officials, as well as foreign officials and others in the private sector with direct knowledge of the memos.”
In other words, the Steele Dossier was an open secret in Washington even before the CNN story, no less its publication by BuzzFeed. Seemingly the only people in the dark were the public.
What’s the alternative?
What if BuzzFeed hadn’t published the dossier, as so many editors, then and now, thought was best? When would the rest of us have been let in on the specifics of the story that many of these editors had been poring over for weeks or even months?
Michael Flynn did his lying to the FBI about his relationship with the Russian Ambassador two weeks after the publication of the dossier, on his fourth day as national security adviser. Trump was told by the White House counsel two days later that Flynn might have lied to the agents. Trump then waffled for 18 days before firing Flynn. (This detailed NBC News account of Flynn’s fall is excellent.) Might we have been told about the essential background then?
Comey’s role as messenger clearly, in retrospect, poisoned his relationship with Trump before it even began. And Trump’s firing of Comey four months later is what triggered the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose brief included determining the truth or falsity of the circumstances described in the dossier. Would we have been told then?
Finally, if it indeed turns out that elements of the dossier were part of a Clinton campaign disinformation effort against Trump, would we only now be being told about it in detail by Department of Justice Special Counsel John Durham and his cheerleaders at places like Fox News?
‘Trust us,’ you say?
The problem with the argument for not publishing the dossier amid all of this is indicative of a larger issue that I am afraid pervades much of Washington coverage. Its implicit premise is that all of us should trust a small, self-referential and largely homogenous group of political reporting insiders to know more than they are telling us, and to dole out to voters what they think we can responsibly handle at a time of the insiders’ choosing.
Yes, a more transparent approach would carry its own challenges: the pee tape and Cohen-to-Prague stories were very likely never true, and should surely never have been reported as if they were. Yes, the allegations of the dossier deserved press scrutiny, but so did the self-interest of those who prepared it, along with those on whom they relied. It’s always critical in good reporting to consider the biases and behavior of sources.
We say all the time that a free and independent press is essential to self-government. If we really believe that, when a new and important controversy takes center stage, we need to trust the self-governors, the public, to make sense of what is happening, even as we seek to provide them with both the facts and the context to make those judgments. At the beginning of 2017, that meant the American people needed to know about the Steele Dossier, both for the truths it contained and because of the consequences of its falsehoods.
Disclosure: Since this column was originally written, BuzzFeed has become a client of my consulting business. BuzzFeed, of course, did not see the column before it was published, and had no input on the content.
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 Unfortunately, the CNN version of this story now online is the one updated two days later, after the publication of the BuzzFeed report.