BuzzFeed's Choice to Publish Trump Dossier Praised, Pilloried

Ben Smith explained the move, but not to everyone's satisfaction
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 11, 2017 11:03 AM CST
BuzzFeed's Choice to Publish Trump Dossier Praised, Pilloried
Screenshot of BuzzFeed's article.   (BuzzFeed)

"The documents have circulated for months and acquired a kind of legendary status among journalists, lawmakers, and intelligence officials who have seen them." So writes BuzzFeed in introducing the 35-page dossier it published Tuesday night that alleges Russia has compromising information, both financial and personal, on President-elect Donald Trump. Their publication raises some big questions about journalistic ethics: Why did BuzzFeed decide to pull the trigger on publishing in full (in its words) "unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations"? Why now? Why hadn't other outlets (Mother Jones did quote from it in October)? Some perspective:

  • From the horse's mouth: BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith in an email explains what went into the decision to publish the dossier, concluding, the move "reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017."

  • At Slate, Will Oremus takes a positional view. Though he says Smith places BuzzFeed within the mainstream media, "he was acting here in a different tradition": that born of the Internet and blogs "in which sensitive and embarrassing information about public figures is readily disclosed" under a public-has-a-right-to-know rallying cry.
  • At the Atlantic, David A. Graham sees that cry as "an abdication of the basic responsibility of journalism." Heaping information into the public's lap is not the reporter's job, he writes. "It is to gather information, sift through it, and determine what is true and what is not."
  • Here, for instance, is New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet's explanation of its own decision: "We, like others, investigated the allegations and haven't corroborated them, and we felt we're not in the business of publishing things we can’t stand by."
  • As for that corroboration, Lawfare makes this point: "This is a document about meetings that either took place or did not take place, stays in hotels that either happened or didn’t, travel that either happened or did not happen. It should be possible to know whether at least some of these allegations are true or false."
  • ProPublica President Richard Tofel suggests the publication an hour prior to BuzzFeed's dump of a CNN story that reported Trump and President Obama had received a two-page summary of the reports last week, changes the game. He tweeted BuzzFeed "kudos ... Once CNN story out, citizens should have evidence to consider for themselves."
  • Hogwash, writes Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post. "It’s never been acceptable to publish rumor and innuendo. And none of the circumstances surrounding this episode—not CNN’s story, not Trump’s dubious history with Russia, not the fact that the intelligence community made a report on it—should change that ethical rule."
(More BuzzFeed stories.)

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