The second question was answered in short order, when BuzzFeed posted a PDF of the 35-page dossier a little after 6 p.m. Even in their posting, BuzzFeed acknowledged some misgivings about the document, admitting that it was full of unverified claims. “It is not just unconfirmed: It includes some clear errors,” the story noted. Verified or not, the claims were highly explosive, and in some cases quite graphic. Because they are not verified, I will not summarize them here, though they can be read at BuzzFeed or in any other number of places.
Other reporting, including from my colleague Rosie Gray, has already begun to poke holes in the assertions contained in the dossier. Trump denied the report on Twitter, writing, “FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” Now that the documents are in the public domain, the work under way within some news organizations to suss out what is true in the report will likely accelerate.
Sensing that the decision to publish would be controversial, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote a memo to staff explaining the thinking, and then posted it on Twitter.
“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing. In this case, the document was in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media,” Smith wrote. “Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice. But publishing the dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”
Smith alluded to the document’s wide circulation, a nod to the fact that many outlets have either acquired or been offered the chance to view it—a group that includes CNN, Politico (whose Ken Vogel said he’d chased the story), and Lawfare. David Corn of Mother Jones also published a story based on information collected by the British intelligence operative in October.
Smith’s reasoning is sincere and considered, but the conclusion is highly dubious. Even more perturbing was the reasoning in the published story. “Now BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government,” the story stated.
That raises a range of potential objections. First, it unfairly forces a public figure—Trump, in this case—to respond to a set of allegations that might or might not be entirely scurrilous; the reporters, by their own admission, do not know. Second, the appeal to “transparency” notwithstanding, this represents an abdication of the basic responsibility of journalism. The reporter’s job is not to simply dump as much information as possible into the public domain, though that can at times be useful too, as some of WikiLeaks’ revelations have shown. It is to gather information, sift through it, and determine what is true and what is not. The point of a professional journalist corps is to have people whose job it is to do that work on behalf of society, and who can cultivate sources and expertise to help them adjudicate it. A pluralistic press corps is necessary to avoid monolithic thinking among reporters, but transparent transmission of misinformation is no more helpful or clarifying than no information at all.