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Opinion | How Did So Much of the Media Get the Steele Dossier So Wrong?

The dossier’s credibility suffered a grievous blow in December 2019, when an investigation by the Department of Justice’s inspector general found that F.B.I. investigations “raised doubts about the reliability of some of Steele’s reports.” The F.B.I. “also assessed the possibility that Russia was funneling disinformation to Steele,” the report said, adding that “certain allegations were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered” by investigators.

Then, this month, a primary source of Mr. Steele’s was arrested and charged with lying to the F.B.I. about how he obtained information that appeared in the dossier. Prosecutors say that the source, Igor Danchenko, did not, as The Wall Street Journal first reported, get his information from a self-proclaimed real estate partner of Mr. Trump’s. That prompted a statement promising further examination from The Journal and something far more significant from The Washington Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee. She took a step that is almost unheard-of: removing large chunks of erroneous articles from 2017 and 2019, as well as an offending video.

So where did much of the press go wrong?

The first problem was this: There is no doubt that Mr. Trump had long curried Mr. Putin’s favor and that he and his family were eager to do business in Russia. Moreover, Mr. Mueller showed, and filed indictments that explained, how the Russians interfered in the 2016 campaign by targeting voter-registration systems, hacking into Democrats’ emails and taking advantage of Facebook and other social media companies to foment dissent and unrest.

Mr. Trump’s choice of Paul Manafort to serve as his campaign chairman reinforced the idea that he was in the thrall of Russia. Those fears were borne out when a bipartisan Senate committee found Mr. Manafort to be a “grave counterintelligence threat” because of his ties to a Kremlin agent. So, given all those connections, it was easy to assume that the dossier’s allegations must also be true. The distinction between what journalists assume and what we verify is often the difference between fiction and reality.

Journalists also had to deal with the fact that many of the denials came from confirmed liars. The night that BuzzFeed went live with the dossier, Mr. Cohen told the website Mic that the material was “so ridiculous on so many levels” and that “this fake-news nonsense needs to stop.” (Mr. Cohen later pleaded guilty to federal charges including lying to banks and Congress, but even after he provided evidence against Mr. Trump, he said the Prague allegation was false.)

The day after the dossier came out, Mr. Trump told reporters: “It’s all fake news. It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen.” (Washington Post fact-checkers would eventually catalog more than 30,000 Trump falsehoods during his term in the White House.) When a well-known liar tells you that something is false, the instinct is to believe that it might well be true.

The situation also became complicated because some reporters simply didn’t like or trust Mr. Trump or didn’t want to appear to be on his side. He had been berating journalists as charlatans while seeking their acclaim; calling on legislators to “open up our libel laws” to make it easier to sue news organizations; and launching personal attacks, especially on female reporters of color. In a perfect world, journalists would treat people they don’t like the same way they treat those they do like, but this is not a perfect world.

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