Thanks to BuzzFeed the Untouchable Story Is Open to Discussion
BuzzFeed did the right thing when it chose to publish the dossier of unverified allegations about Donald Trump’s supposed entanglements with Russia. Some experts on media ethics were quick to argue otherwise this morning.
This kind of second-guessing generally proceeds from the underlying premise that journalistic ethics is some set of straightforward rules about right and wrong, which, when dutifully followed, will reliably produce good journalism. This is a deeply useless approach. Any decision to publish any piece of reporting involves balancing competing principles and coming to a conclusion that fits the subject matter, the broader context and the publication’s own mission and appetite for risk.
Whether the ultimate scandal turns out to be about Trump’s alleged conduct, his relations with Russia, his feud with the intelligence services or some combination, follow-up reporting will help the public sort through the dossier’s claims.
This case, in particular, is a good reminder of the fact that the flip side of deciding to publish something is deciding not to publish something. But journalists are rarely called to account for their errors of omission. Multiple news organizations reportedly had their hands on the Russia dossier for weeks, and before yesterday, even as the circle of public officials who deemed it a serious concern kept widening, none of those media outlets could figure out how to share it.
Now the untouchable story has become a matter of open discussion, whether the ultimate scandal turns out to be about Trump’s alleged conduct, his relations with Russia, his feud with the intelligence services or some combination of all of those. Follow-up reporting is helping the public sort through the dossier’s claims. BuzzFeed’s decision was the key to all of this.
Judgments about what and how and why to publish vary from publication to publication, and that variation is healthy and productive. What CNN and BuzzFeed executed last night was a classic high-low interaction: CNN reported that the dossier existed and that it was of great public importance; BuzzFeed produced the dossier. CNN’s vagueness was redeemed by BuzzFeed’s specificity, and BuzzFeed’s risk-taking was justified by CNN’s testimony about the ultimate news value.
Sometimes the transaction simply goes from low to high: A less respectable outlet publishes a story, and the subject of the story responds, and the subject’s response becomes a fact in the world that is safe for judicious publications to discuss in the open. Thus this morning’s Times was liberated to discuss “sex videos involving prostitutes with Mr. Trump,” or, more precisely, reports of memos describing those sex videos.
However the process unfolds, we know more today than we did yesterday, and tomorrow we will know more still. BuzzFeed’s rhetoric about “publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds” was maybe a little pious, but those of us at the former Gawker Media learned a painful lesson last year about what can happen when journalists talk about their mission less than piously.
Journalism is a rude business and we live in rude times. Blind appeals to principle won’t make things any nicer, but they could make things worse.
BuzzFeed Let Trump Cast a Shadow of Doubt on All Reporting
By publishing an unverified report alleging the Russians have compromising information on President-elect Donald J. Trump, BuzzFeed made it less likely that truth will be journalists’ only goal and less likely that when the truth surfaces, the public will believe it.
In his news conference on Wednesday morning, Trump conflated the work of BuzzFeed and CNN, although they were very different forms of reporting. He started by complimenting all the newsrooms that did not post the document, criticizing those who did without initially naming them, and suggesting that the reason for keeping it out of public view is because it is “fake news.”
Had BuzzFeed taken a different approach, the story today would be that intelligence officials were seriously concerned about the report.
To the untrained eye, it looked like he was making friends with the media by patting them on the back for doing the right thing by ignoring that ludicrous rumor that the Russians have a sex tape.
Here’s what really happened: BuzzFeed posted the dossier, noting that it was unverified and even highly problematic, about two hours after CNN began informing its viewers that the report existed, who had seen it and what the possible implications were to Trump’s ability to run the country.
Those are two distinct acts, with BuzzFeed merely showing its cards to the public, and CNN trying to build context and meaning through reporting and analysis.
But by lumping the two newsrooms together, Trump was able to cast the shadow of doubt on all the reporting that journalists are doing on the dossier. Now, anyone who might have been genuinely curious about the truth has reason to stop listening. If you hate Trump, you automatically assume it’s true. And if you love him, you assume this is one more example of unfair reporting.
Had BuzzFeed taken a different approach, the story today would be that senior intelligence officials were concerned enough about the report to brief the outgoing and incoming president. The follow-up stories would address how America’s senior most leaders were responding.
Instead, BuzzFeed said it wanted to give its readers the opportunity to decide for themselves. So now we’re all engaged in a charade of Spy Kids, trying to determine if the information is likely true or false. Yet average citizens don’t have the tools to sort through these claims.
But the most damaging result of BuzzFeed’s unfortunate decision is Trump’s newfound weapon to dismiss all journalists who criticize him as unfair and unethical. In painting the entire news media as a caricature of BuzzFeed, he undermines the efficacy of solid reporting and legitimate criticism. The president-elect is doing his best to diminish the role of journalism in our democracy. He doesn’t need any help.