One of the problems with some of the press’s coverage of intelligence findings is that this coverage often becomes a game of informational telephone, in which innuendo piles atop innuendo in order to create narratives that diverge from reality. Many in the media have claimed that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s statement about his conversation with Donald Trump Wednesday night “confirms” the CNN story about the “dossier” published by BuzzFeed. Attending to the details of the original CNN story and Clapper’s statement reveals what such a “confirmation” might — and might not — mean.
First, let’s turn to the actual text of the CNN report as it was released on Tuesday night. Here is the central narrative of that CNN report (in my words):
The Intelligence Community created a two-page summary of a dossier listing some allegations against Donald Trump. This summary was in some way included with other briefing documents.
This story does not say that this dossier was credible, nor does it assert that intelligence officials vouched for the credibility of this dossier. CNN also says in the original report that it cannot verify that this synopsis was discussed with Trump. (Late Thursday, NBC reported that, according to a source, this synopsis was not discussed in the intelligence briefing with Trump. After the briefing, FBI Director James Comey reportedly discussed the dossier with Trump in a “one-on-one” conversation.)
In part because this story was hyped as a major finding, many in the media (especially anti-Trump partisans) took it to be saying things that the text of the story did not actually assert. At times, the ambiguous phrasing of the original CNN story might have contributed to certain assumptions. Consider the opening line: “Classified documents presented last week to President Obama and President-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump, multiple U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the briefings tell CNN.” Some readers might take “presented” to mean “orally discussed” (as in “I will now present my second-grade book report”), and CNN even seems to use “presented” as “orally discussed” later on in the story. But “presented” doesn’t have to mean “orally discussed.” It could also mean “given.” Thus, the original CNN story’s diction left open the possibility of both an oral and non-oral presentation.
Moreover, because CNN invested so much time in its report to the provenance of this dossier and alluding to its accusations, some partisans might have assumed (without evidence) that this dossier was substantive. Some might even take reporting on a dossier to imply some basic kind of substantiveness; for instance, the press usually doesn’t cover reports alleging that the moon landing was faked. However, CNN explicitly does not stand by the substantiveness of the dossier. In fact, another NBC report said that this synopsis would have been used as an example of disinformation; that report also suggests that the synopsis might have been brought along to the briefing (hence it was “presented” to Trump) without being discussed at the briefing itself or even left for Trump to read later. The tenor of the press coverage after this report sometimes assumed that the dossier was substantive, but CNN does not explicitly say that it is.
Some of the “spin” around this CNN report has been substantially challenged (if not outright discredited), but the actual text of this report offers much narrower findings.
This bring us to Clapper’s statement:
I thought it important to point this out to all the people who continue to claim Trump “disparages” the intelligence community.