There’s no set of rules for when to publish and not to publish an explosive, sensitive story—decisions are made with limited knowledge, and the full impact is often only felt after the fact. Even granting those limitations, BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a dossier full of serious accusations against President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday raised serious questions.
Late Tuesday afternoon, CNN published a story reporting that intelligence officials had given Trump, President Obama, and eight top members of Congress a two-page memo, summarizing allegations that Russian agents claimed they had compromising information on Trump. (If you’re finding this chain difficult to follow, you’re not alone; I tried to parse the story in some detail here.) CNN said officials had given no indication that they believed the material in the memo to be accurate. That memo, in turn, was based on 35 pages of materials gathered by a former British intelligence operative who had gathered them while conducting opposition research for various Trump opponents, both Republicans and Democrats.
The story left many questions unanswered—most importantly, whether the claims were accurate, but also just what the claims were; CNN said it was withholding the contents of the memo because it could not independently verify the allegations.
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.
The dangers of telling the public, Here it is; you decide what’s real and what isn’t are underscored in the strange story of Edgar Maddison Welch, the North Carolina man who took a rifle to a Washington, D.C., pizzeria to “self-investigate” bogus claims of child sex slaves there. He is hardly the only self-investigator out there.
There is a crucial difference between the Pizzagate story and BuzzFeed’s posting of documents. The Pizzagate story seems to have spread through a network of malicious purveyors of misinformation in the “fake news” universe, as Craig Silverman laid it out in, yes, BuzzFeed. Publishing the Trump dossier, by contrast, wasn’t an attempt to mislead; instead, it was a decision to sidestep that question altogether. But the danger is demonstrated with Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” rebuttal. When serious and conscientious outlets publish information for whose veracity they cannot vouch, they make it easy for critics of the press to brand all reporting with which they disagree as simply “fake news.”
If the Trump dossier does prove to be full of inaccuracies, it will resurface in debate every time a credible and supported allegation about Trump emerges. Carefully vetted stories will be rejected by partisans who will haul up the haste to post a damaging dossier as proof that no reporting can really be trusted.
There’s always the possibility that the dossier will contain some important truths, too. But the answer to that question ought to be clear before the documents are published. Anything else sets a risky precedent for the future of reporting.