By reporting on, and publishing, a salacious, unsubstantiated, and likely false dossier of lurid accusations against President-elect Donald Trump, CNN and Buzzfeed have hurt the media’s ability to hold the new administration accountable in future.
The document alleges Russia cultivated Trump as an agent for years, and collected compromising information on him, such as an episode in which he allegedly hired prostitutes in Russia to urinate on a bed in which President Barack Obama had slept. The dossier had apparently circulated for months among journalists and political operatives — it was the apparent evidence that Trump opponents such as GOP consultant Rick Wilson hoped would destroy him — but none trusted it enough to print it.
(Update: Wilson has since denied that he saw the Buzzfeed dossier, though he knew of some of the allegations in it.)
Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith admitted, in a letter to staff Tuesday evening — which, presumably, they read while wiping away tears at Obama’s farewell address — that “there is serious reason to doubt the allegations.” But he published them anyway.
Timing — and desperation — appear to have tempted Buzzfeed to publish the dossier, and CNN to foreshadow its release.
Earlier Tuesday, CNN reported that intelligence officials had shown “compromising” information to Obama and Trump in classified briefings. And Democratic Senators used the first congressional hearings of 2017 — including the confirmation hearing for Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) — to ask vague questions about allegations that the Trump campaign had coordinated somehow with the Russian government, a key claim in the dossier’s overall narrative.
(Asked on Twitter whether CNN had coordinated its reporting with Senate Democrats, Jake Tapper issued a vague denial.)
@joelpollak Dem and GOP senators who are on Intel committee and also saw a version of the IC report and have Intel sources? Them?
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) January 11, 2017
The release of the dossier also seemed timed, in part, for the eve of Trump’s first press conference in months Wednesday.
While declaring the allegations unsubstantiated, several outlets seemed to believe, or hope, that they would unravel the Trump presidency. Politico’s “Playbook” actually reported Wednesday that Trump was unlikely to quit — as if it had been possibile:
DONALD TRUMP IS GOING TO BECOME THE PRESIDENT IN NINE DAYS. Unless he steps down — extraordinarily unlikely — short of impeachment, there is no mechanism we’ve heard of to strip him of the job. There’s also no movement among Republicans to prevent him from taking the White House. [original emphasis]
The entire episode repeated a pattern from the presidential campaign, in which the media reported something presumed to be damaging to Trump, then waited for him to implode, and expressed shock when he did not.
However, on previous occasions, there was usually some kernel of truth to the stories, such as a remark Trump himself had actually made in public. In this case, there is no real evidence whatsoever of the allegations, and significant evidence to the contrary, including evidence of a hoax.
The net result is that CNN and Buzzfeed have destroyed whatever residual confidence the public might have had in the media. And they have done so with just days to go before the start of a presidency that looks set to continue in the “strong executive” tradition of its two predecessors.
If there were ever a time for the media to repair their damaged credibility, this was it. Now, in the hypothetical case the media ever find something truly worrying about Donald Trump, few people will believe them.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.