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The complex relationship between journalists and private investigators

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

You may recall the clamor that erupted over every potential detail of what became known as the Steele dossier when it came to light in the fall of 2016 and was then posted in full in January 2017. The 35-page report about allegations of then President-elect Donald Trump's alleged corruption, sexual indiscretions and communications with Russia was published and dissected by media outlets large and small. Nearly five years later, many key claims in the memo have been debunked, and one of its key researchers was recently arrested for lying to the FBI about his sources.

The whole ordeal brings up a lot of questions, particularly about the private investigators who compiled the dossier and the journalists who relied upon it. So what role do private investigators play in the news coverage we all consume? I have two guests here to help us delve a bit deeper. Barry Meier is a reporter and investigative journalist. He's author of "Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, And The Rise Of Private Spies." Barry Meier, welcome.

BARRY MEIER: Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: And Tyler Maroney is a former journalist turned private investigator. He's the author of "The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence Is Reshaping The World." He's also the co-founder of the private investigations firm Quest Research & Investigations. Tyler Maroney, welcome to you as well.

TYLER MARONEY: Thanks for having me, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Barry Meier, I'll start with you. The Steele dossier - remind us, what went wrong journalistically? What was wrong about the coverage?

MEIER: Well, I think as reporters approached Donald Trump as an individual, they saw someone who was extraordinarily flawed, extraordinarily problematic. And the idea that he could, you know, take another step and collude or collaborate with the Kremlin didn't seem that remote. If he could do it, he might do it. And so I think, you know, journalists who believed that Trump was capable of anything jumped to the conclusion that he was capable of all these things.

FOLKENFLIK: Tyler, did you have any issue with how Barry Meier described the failings of the press that you just heard?

MARONEY: Well, having worked as both a journalist and a private detective, I have some understanding of the dynamics of both industries. I don't see this as a failing of the private investigations industry as much as I see it as the failing of journalists who, in some cases, may have failed to corroborate leads - and I use that word very seriously, leads, as opposed to conclusions - of some of their sources.

FOLKENFLIK: Barry Meier, aren't there times where you've relied on either private investigators or the law firms or PR officials or other people who have commissioned their work?

MEIER: Absolutely. Obviously, as a reporter, I've obtained documents that are not public documents. I've contacted private investigative firms for help in trying to locate public documents. And so my issue - why I decided to look at, you know, how reporters responded to information being shopped to them is that I thought it ultimately rebounded to the detriment of journalism. And, you know, as a journalist, that's my principal concern. How does this reflect on what we do? And unfortunately, the way that the dossier was handled, they were and are now still being used as cudgels by Trump and his cronies and the right wing to attack journalism and basically, you know, as a shield to throw up and protect themselves against legitimate investigations.

FOLKENFLIK: What's the same about the mission and techniques of a reporter versus a private eye? And what's different? How about you, Tyler Maroney?

MARONEY: I worry a bit that part of his narrative is that the private investigations industry is somehow worse than he is characterizing it to be. It's almost as if I wrote a book about journalism that's centered on the work of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, two reporters whose work was found to have been fabricated or plagiarized.

FOLKENFLIK: A bad orchard rather than a bad apples.

MARONEY: Right, right, exactly. And by the way, I have been on the record myself saying that some of the work as it's been reported is clearly not just unethical or improper, but possibly illegal.

FOLKENFLIK: Targeting reporters.

MARONEY: Exactly. I mean, and not only just targeting reporters, but using deception and other issues. But I would also say that those are "operatives," quote, unquote, former intelligence operatives, former spies who have no business being in the field that I work in. They simply are private detectives because they declare themselves to be so. In that case, I think that there may be a good argument to be made in terms of the tactics that they're using. But this idea that, you know, there are private detectives who introduce themselves to journalists and offer information that they have collected is routine and has been going on for decades, in the overwhelming majority of the cases, those private detectives have come across information that should be made public.

FOLKENFLIK: Barry Meier, that's a fair question. Is the fault on the side of the investigators when it's a question of, as in the Steele case, what is presented to the public by journalistic outfits, or is the problem with the journalists themselves?

MEIER: I don't fault the investigators, per se. They're just doing what they're being paid to do. You know, and if it's their client's wish to get publicity for a story or to plant some information in the media that's going to be damaging to their adversary, that's what they're getting paid to do, and that's what they're going to do. So they're basically - you know, they're guns for hire. They may be good guns for hire. They may be bad guns for hire.

The real responsibility and my reason for writing about this really has to do with journalism. And - you know, and Tyler's right. There's been a long-running symbiotic relationship between journalists and private investigators. We may want to change that dynamic. As journalists, we may want to now say going forward, as a result of this whole debacle involving the Steele dossier, to private investigators, look; we love what you're bringing to us. We're happy to look at it. We're happy to investigate it. But if we're going to use it, we're going to let the public know that there's something going on behind the curtain.

FOLKENFLIK: As a practitioner, Tyler Maroney, are you comfortable with that?

MARONEY: Well, absolutely. I agree that transparency is crucial, although I just want to disagree with Barry's terminology. Private detectives are not guns for hire. We are people for hire in the same way that a journalist is. I mean, a New York Times employee works for a publicly traded company that has investors, so you could argue that you are, you know, pens for hire that act at the behest of your institutional investors.

But to your point about transparency, absolutely. But sometimes the source of the information is irrelevant. If I'm a private detective and I find evidence that the mayor at City Hall is on the take and I hand that information to a journalist who runs with it, what does it matter that it was a private detective who found it? What's important is that there is misconduct. Simply identifying the fact that one of your sources, whether it's a private detective or not, has handed you that information doesn't further the story. It only muddles it.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been hearing from two perspectives on the relationship between private investigators and journalists. That last voice belongs to Tyler Maroney. He's a former journalist and author of "The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence Is Reshaping The World." He's also the co-founder of the private investigations firm Quest Research & Investigations. And we've also been hearing from Barry Meier, an investigative journalist and the author of "Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, And The Rise Of Private Spies." Thanks to you both.

MARONEY: Thank you, David.

MEIER: Thank you so much, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.