Political Editors / December 8, 2021

In Brief: The Media Stonewalls on the Steele Dossier

News companies are even more reluctant than other businesses to come clean about their misbehavior.

Christopher Steele’s “dossier” on Donald Trump provided all the fodder the Leftmedia needed to aid Democrats in their bid to undermine Trump. It didn’t help Hillary Clinton win the election as she’d planned, but it did seed trouble for the next four years. Eric Dezenhall is CEO of a crisis management firm and he says the media has some explaining to do, but he also knows they never will do so.

“Why don’t they just fess up and say they’re sorry?” That is the question journalists have asked about the corporate and institutional clients of my crisis-management business. It’s a question media companies should be asking themselves amid the implosion of the Steele dossier. Here we are, a few weeks after the dossier was discredited, and no one has paid a price.

Having had media companies as clients, I’ve found that when they’re under fire, they behave no differently from chemical or drug companies. Why? Because they don’t see coming clean as being in their self-interest.

Among other things, the truth can tarnish the brand and jam them up in court. So they often deny, stonewall, close ranks, and attack their critics. Two things media companies have that other businesses don’t is the ability to deliver news instantly and the mantle of moral authority.

Never mind the terrible damage done to the nation by this malfeasance. Leftmedia outlets have branding considerations to tend to.

The crisis confronting the news media post-dossier is rooted in disinformation. In the crisis business, we often do detective work to uncover the sources of disinformation leveled at our clients. The first factor in a successful disinformation campaign is an audience that desperately wants to believe something. Then you find a plausible allegation that fits the marketplace. Next, you implant an outrageous allegation within the plausible one. Finally, you find a trustworthy person, someone simpatico with media organizations, to let it rip.

The merchandising of the Steele dossier fits this template. First, there was fertile ground for an anti-Trump narrative. Donald Trump’s rise was especially odious to journalistic and cultural elites. Then there was the shiniest object in the dossier, the infamous “pee tape” that no one credible has claimed to have seen. Finally, there were operatives with strong ties to the media, including Democratic Party consultants and former journalists billed as “marketplace intelligence” researchers who are, in reality, press agents.

When nonmedia companies make unforced errors, the fallout is punishing — lost sales, congressional hearings, lawsuits and management shakeups. When journalists fumble in the manner of the Steele dossier, however, the immediate reaction is rewarding — blockbuster stories, clicks, ratings and ad sales.

The longer-term consequences tend to manifest as a vague generational erosion in credibility, which is happening now in the acceptance of the “fake news” battle cry.

The upshot is simple, he says, but profound:

Journalists are right to dig for malfeasance. But with all the hand-wringing over the decline of good journalism, it turns out that one reason why someone like Donald Trump could win a political knife fight by shouting “Fake news!” is that, on the Steele dossier, he was right.

Wall Street Journal subscribers can read the whole thing here.

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