A Russian businessman who was suing BuzzFeed over its publication of the so-called Steele dossier is no longer taking legal action, Politico reported Wednesday, ending a four-year legal battle over a controversial and disputed memo that some news organizations are now reevaluating their coverage of. The dossier, a 35-page political opposition report compiled by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele during the 2016 campaign and alleging possible ties between Donald Trump and Russia, was published by BuzzFeed in January 2017. Among those outraged by the outlet’s decision to publish what it described as “explosive but unverified allegations” was Russian internet entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev, who claimed in a lawsuit to have been libeled by its contents. (BuzzFeed later redacted his name from the online document.) In December 2018, Gubarev’s defamation suit against BuzzFeed was thrown out by a federal judge, who ruled that the outlet was legally protected in publishing the document. Gubarev appealed the ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals only to announce, in a joint statement with BuzzFeed on Wednesday, that the request was being abandoned.
“Mr. Gubarev has decided to end his litigation against BuzzFeed over its publication of the dossier in January 2017. The federal court ruled that BuzzFeed had a right to publish the dossier because it was part of a government investigation, and Mr. Gubarev accepts that judgment,“ Gubarev and BuzzFeed said in the statement, which noted that BuzzFeed “explained to readers that its allegations were unverified” at the time of publishing and “has not learned any information that would verify the allegations about Mr. Gubarev or the companies he headed” since then.
The end of Gubarev’s legal battle against BuzzFeed comes amid a reckoning among other media organizations that amplified the memo, which was published after both Barack Obama and Trump had reportedly been briefed on it, and had circulated so widely that it had “acquired a kind of legendary status among journalists, lawmakers, and intelligence officials,” BuzzFeed wrote in its introduction to the report. Since the time of publishing, the veracity of the Steele dossier has been undermined by two investigations and, most recently, a federal indictment. Igor Danchenko, a key source behind the dossier, was earlier this month arrested and charged with lying to the FBI about how he acquired information that appeared in the memo. (Danchenko has pleaded not guilty.)
Days later, the Washington Post decided to edit and republish large sections of two articles about the dossier—as well as an accompanying video—that had identified businessman Sergei Millian as Steele’s “Source D.” In a news story about the reassessment, executive editor Sally Buzbee told journalist Paul Farhi that the indictment and new findings by the Post “created doubts” about Millian’s involvement, and that the paper could no longer stand by the accuracy of that assertion. Farhi himself underscored the unusualness of the Post’s decision, writing that “it’s rare for a publication to make wholesale changes after publication and to republish the edited story, especially more than four years afterward.” In a New York Times op-ed detailing the journalistic failures over the dossier, Columbia Journalism School’s Bill Grueskin called Buzbee’s move “almost unheard-of.”
As my colleague Joe Pompeo wrote back in 2018, “Publishing the dossier in its raw, unvetted form was a highly controversial editorial decision that blew the lid off of a political thriller for the ages.” And now, as the dossier’s credibility continues to unravel, journalists are left “to reckon how, in the heat of competition, so many were taken in so easily because the dossier seemed to confirm what they already suspected,” Grueskin wrote Monday. The same day, Politico, following the Post’s lead, rewrote two sections of a 2019 story and inserted an editor’s note. The Wall Street Journal said in a statement to Axios that they are “aware of the serious questions raised by the allegations and continue to report and to follow the investigation closely.” But other outlets, such as CNN and MSNBC, “have so far been less forthcoming” about whether they planned to correct the record, Axios reported over the weekend.
The Post’s acknowledgement “represents the first big test of Buzbee’s tenure since she arrived in June,” according to Politico’s Jack Shafer, who noted that “one standard measure of a newsroom boss is how she grapples with a publication’s errors and miscues.” That the Post did so by rewriting and erasing, however, makes it “to determine precisely what the paper’s first rough draft got wrong and how it was amended,” Shafer points out, which is seemingly at odds with the accountability exercise. As journalism professor Stephen Bates told Politico: “It’s hard to have a paper of record if the record keeps changing.”
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