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Ex-BuzzFeed News Editor Says He Would Still Publish the Trump Dossier, But There's a Catch

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

BuzzFeed News is no more, but its former editor, Ben Smith, spearheading the new Semafor media venture, decided to reflect on the moment he gave the green light to post the infamous Steele Dossier. The document was unverifiable and has now been dismissed as anything but legitimate. This tranche of papers is what set off the FBI’s counterintelligence probe into Donald Trump, the investigation that formed the core of the Russian collusion hoax that later evolved into the Mueller investigation. The media circus destroyed the last vestiges of credibility with many reporters in the legacy media. No bombshell development ever panned out due to a lack of evidence. After the mayhem this had caused, Smith penned what he would do differently, and shockingly, it’s not much. The former BuzzFeed editor said he would still have published the Trump dossier, but not in PDF format—just screenshots with added text for context and analysis (via The Atlantic): 


I first got wind of the dossier in December 2016, when I was the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News. One of our reporters, Ken Bensinger, received an unusual invitation to a small gathering at a hilltop mansion in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. He’d been invited by an acquaintance, Glenn Simpson, a onetime journalist who had become a kind of private investigator and co-founded the opposition research firm Fusion GPS. Ken got lost and showed up late, finding a boisterous, all‑male affair: plenty of booze, hunks of meat on the grill, some weed being smoked outside. Simpson drew him into a conversation about a mutual acquaintance, a former British spy named Christopher Steele. Simpson then told Ken something he didn’t know: Steele had been working the case of the president-elect, Donald Trump, and he’d assembled evidence that Trump had close ties to the Kremlin—including claims that Michael Cohen, one of his lawyers, had held secret meetings with Russian officials in Prague, and that the Kremlin had a lurid video of Trump cavorting with prostitutes in the Ritz-Carlton Moscow that would come to be known as the “pee tape.” 


I’d expected that backlash, and at first welcomed it. I thought we were on the right side of the decade-old conflict between the transparent new internet and a legacy media whose power came in part from the information they withheld. And, of course, I loved the traffic. This was a huge revelation, a secret unveiled. What made me uncomfortable was the gratitude. 

My phone lit up with text messages from Democrats thanking us for publishing the dossier and revealing Trump to be as depraved as they had always believed him to be. Hillary Clinton had never mastered social media; her supporters had never developed the dense networks of memes and conspiracy theories that powered the Trump movement. But now liberals, forming a nascent “resistance,” were starting to build their own powerful narratives on social media that were sometimes more resonant than factual. The notion of a single, vast conspiracy seemed to answer their desperate question of how Trump could have been elected. Russia clearly had helped. WikiLeaks’ hack-and-dump operation was a crucial factor among many in a very close election. You didn’t need to believe all the details in the dossier to know those things. 


…publishing the dossier wasn’t, in the end, a dagger to Trump’s heart. If anything, it muddied the less sensational revelations of his business dealings and his campaign manager’s ties to Russia. An FBI agent who investigated Trump, Peter Strzok, later said the dossier “framed the debate” in a way that ultimately helped Trump: “Here’s what’s alleged to have happened, and if it happened, boy, it’s horrible—we’ve got a traitor in the White House. But if it isn’t true, well, then everything is fine.” 

It was, the reporter Barry Meier wrote, “a media clusterfuck of epic proportions.” The dossier’s overreaching allegation of an immense and perverse conspiracy would, he predicted, “ultimately benefit Donald Trump.” 

Six years after publication, I accept that conclusion. And yet I remain defensive of our decision. I find it easiest to explain not in the grandiose terms of journalism, but in the more direct language of respect for your reader. Don’t you, the reader, think you’re smart enough to see a document like that and understand that it is influential but unverified without losing your mind? Would you rather people like me had protected you from seeing it? 

Imagine the alternative, a world in which the American public knows that there is a secret document making murky allegations that the president-elect has been compromised, a document that is being investigated by the FBI, that the president-elect and the outgoing president have been briefed on, and that everyone who is anyone has seen—but that they can’t. This would, if anything, produce darker speculation. It might have made the allegations seem more credible than they were. 


… If I had to do it again, I would publish the dossier—we couldn’t suppress it, not once CNN had discussed it and its implications on air. But I would hold more tightly to the document, so that no one could read it without reading what we knew about it—that we weren’t sure it was true, and in fact we had noticed errors in it. Releasing a document that could be shared without context—and this is as true of the WikiLeaks material as it is of the dossier—created partisan symbols, not crowdsourced analysis. 

In technical terms, that means I wouldn’t simply publish it as a PDF, destined to float free from our earnest caveats. At best, we could have published the document as screenshots attached to the context we had and the context we would learn. Perhaps in some small way, this would have limited its transformation from a set of claims into a banner of the “resistance.” But I’m not under the illusion that journalists could have contained its wildfire spread, any more than I think we could have concealed it. 


It's a lengthy defense of publishing what we know now as Russian disinformation. Steele’s sources took him for a ride. The whole counterintelligence investigation into the former president was soaked in partisan politics from zealots at the FBI, some of whom were worried about their heavy-handed nature probing Hillary Clinton’s unauthorized and unsecured email system while she served as our secretary of state under Obama; these people thought she would win the election. It’s not best to make an enemy of a US president.

The most disturbing revelation from the FBI’s deep state shenanigans centered on Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. These two love birds exchanged tens of thousands of text messages that soiled the impartiality and professionalism that the bureau prides itself on. Strzok was a high-ranking counterintelligence agent who signed off on Crossfire Hurricane, the spy operation into the Trump campaign. Page was an FBI lawyer. The two engaged in an extramarital affair, an admission that destroyed their careers. When Mueller took over the FBI’s investigation, he removed Strzok from the team, relegating him to the human resources department before he was disgracefully fired. 

The funny part about the piece is the inclusion that this dossier and the investigation it sparked didn’t impact Trump negatively. It only put his life under the microscope in what could be called a four-year character assassination attempt. This relentless media smear campaign eventually cost him a second term. It was used to plant seeds of distrust and skepticism within the intelligence community, and it worked; these people leaked privileged communications to the liberal press in hopes of hamstringing the Trump administration. If he was a traitor, these officials thought they were doing a patriotic duty, but we know that’s a lie. Like those at the Justice Department, they flat-out didn’t like Trump, so they carried out an alternate agenda.


The circus around the dossier didn’t hurt Trump is some serious gaslighting. Who was indicted on an equally ludicrous campaign violation charge and the loss of living in the White House? Donald Trump. Does that sound like Trump has benefitted from this fake news dossier’s publication?

Also, this wasn’t some Woodward and Bernstein event. It was Keystone cops. The Clinton campaign paid for the dossier, it was a piece of biased political propaganda. Hillary’s team wanted dirt on Trump, hired an ex-MI6 spook to compile it, and you got an opposition research file. The FBI and the intelligence community got duped by a piece of campaign research that was totally false. And some people wonder how we missed 100,000-plus Soviet troops entering Afghanistan in 1979. 


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