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Arrest of Steele dossier source forces some news outlets to reexamine their coverage


Some of the nation's leading news organizations are revisiting coverage of allegations against candidate and then President Donald Trump. It follows the indictment of a key source for the Steele dossier, the infamous opposition research into possible links between Trump and Russia. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now to talk about this. David, remind us about the dossier and the role it played in the 2016 race.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Right. So the dossier included a lot of accusations about Trump, a lot of salacious accusations about Trump's sex life. It was put together by a former British intelligence official for a consulting firm hired by Democrats. And it claimed that Russia had cultivated Trump as a target for years and that the Russians were likely blackmailing him. The dossier alleged the Trump campaign was also conspiring with Russia in the 2016 election to damage Hillary Clinton. This dossier was misused by FBI agents to surveil a U.S. citizen. And a lot of the specific accusations in the dossier were even denied at the time. They looked shaky as time moved forward and have since been discredited, yet they echoed for several years.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the Justice Department has charged that key source for the dossier, Russian analyst Igor Danchenko, with lying the FBI. What does this mean for news stories that relied on his claims?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, The Wall Street Journal, ABC News and The Washington Post had explicitly based some reporting on Danchenko's claims in the dossier. Each identified a Russian business figure with ties to Trump as the main source for Danchenko, seemingly giving the dossier greater credibility. Federal prosecutors now say that Danchenko never spoke to that Russian figure and that he also relied on a PR consultant with ties to the Clintons who was spreading gossip. The Post, ABC News and The Journal are revisiting those past stories. And The Post's new executive editor, Sally Buzbee, acknowledges it contradicts some of the previous reports.

MARTÍNEZ: And that's far from the only example of flawed reporting, David. What are some of the others?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look, there are examples of specific stories, and then there's just the sheer volume of it. In 2016, the question of the Steele dossier was bouncing around journalistic and national security circles. In January 2017, then-BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith posted the entire document. He said it was in the public's interest to know what federal officials were worried about, even while noting that its allegations hadn't been verified. Think of McClatchy, which - the owner of the Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star and other major metro newspapers, that news organization hasn't retracted two separate stories claiming Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, met with Kremlin agents in Prague. He didn't. MSNBC and CNN gave a ton of airtime to former intelligence officials they had hired as pundits who gave it credence while NPR stayed away from specifics because it couldn't verify them. But let's be fair, this network also invited on lawmakers and others who invoked its themes. All of which plays into Trump's claims that the press was out to get him. The Steele report drove a lot of coverage, and I don't think you've seen news organizations sufficiently wrestle with that.

MARTÍNEZ: But, David, why does all this matter?

FOLKENFLIK: Let's be clear. It doesn't fundamentally change our understanding of Trump and his relationship to Russia. This didn't prompt special prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigations. He had questionable business dealings there. Trump wanted help from the Russians against Hillary Clinton. The Russians did interfere in the elections and Trump denied it. And you can base that on the bipartisan Senate Intelligence report. But no one ever found any proof of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. And the Steele report drove a lot of conversation and coverage for years. This harms the press' credibility. When you get the facts wrong, when you contribute to misunderstanding, that was unfair to Trump and his supporters, as well as to the facts. And I think it hurts journalists right now who are investigating other possible wrongdoing by Trump for which there's far greater evidence. Take the seeming efforts by the former president's team to block last year's election results - the press has to address this, I think.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks a lot.


(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL WILBUR'S "DEVOTED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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