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Opinion Does CNN still stand by its reporting on the Steele dossier?

Former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele arrives at the High Court in London on July 24, 2020. (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

A week ago, CNN covered the indictment of Igor Danchenko, the primary source for the discredited Trump-Russia dossier compiled in 2016 by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. The document, which stems from special counsel John Durham’s probe into the Russia investigation, alleged that Danchenko lied to the FBI about interactions with sources as he gathered material for Steele.

Host Victor Blackwell noted that Durham’s work, including three indictments, wasn’t landing with the impact anticipated by former president Donald Trump. “Yes, I mean, look, this is the third person that has been charged,” responded senior justice correspondent Evan Perez. “And all of them have been charged with these types of crimes, lying in some fashion during the investigation. And it is not the type of thing that is necessarily rocking, as you said, the claim that the former president made.”

Wemple: Indictment of Steele dossier source is more bad news for multiple media outlets

There was one thing missing from that discussion: CNN’s long-standing claim that the Steele dossier had been at least partly corroborated. Last year, the Erik Wemple Blog chronicled numerous such comments from CNN hosts and reporters. A typical one came from host Don Lemon in November 2017: "Listen, so we haven’t reported here on CNN the salacious details of that dossier, but much of the dossier has been corroborated.”

Lemon wasn’t freelancing; his assessment originated from a February 2017 report by Perez and chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, indicating that U.S. investigators had “corroborated some of the communications” in the dossier. The “intercepts do confirm that some of the conversations described in the dossier took place between the same individuals on the same days and from the same locations as detailed in the dossier, according to the officials,” noted the story. But even that report couldn’t confirm “whether any content relates to then-candidate Trump” and noted that “officials did not comment on or confirm any alleged conversations or meetings between Russian officials and US citizens, including associates of then-candidate Trump.”

Narrow though the reporting was, it served as a springboard for broader expressions of confidence in Steele’s work. “CNN, by the way, has corroborated some elements of that dossier," said anchor Wolf Blitzer in June 2017. “A lot has been been verified,” said CNN anchor John Vause in January 2018. If nothing else, the dossier demonstrates how undisciplined cable chatter can amplify a tightly worded print story.

Whatever the distortions, “corroboration" is a poor word to associate with the dossier. As the Erik Wemple Blog has noted many times, the December 2019 report of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz indicated that the FBI had concluded the dossier was a mostly a compendium of inaccurate, unconfirmed and already public claims. The Danchenko indictment contextualizes the flimsiness, alleging that Danchenko fabricated a conversation with a source and relied on a Democratic operative for a claim that ended up in the document.

In light of the recent developments, we asked CNN if it still stands by its “corroboration” reporting and, if so, to which specific parts of the dossier does that apply? We received no response. So, we’ll have to repeat the statement that the network provided for our 2020 story: “CNN stands by our reporting. Our approach to the dossier has been consistent since day one. CNN only reported details when they were corroborated, part of a government filing, or publicly discussed by officials or those mentioned.”

Consistent? Yes, to its credit, CNN covered the Danchenko indictment with a smattering of reports last Thursday. There was also a piece. By contrast, the “corroboration” story of February 2017 received saturation coverage at a network programmed to hype all Trump-related items. That brand of asymmetry helps explain why many people mistrust CNN.