BuzzFeed was right to publish Trump-Russia files

January 11, 2017
(Lto R) President Elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Images via Wikimedia Commons

Early Tuesday evening, spurred by a CNN story, BuzzFeed published a 35-page dossier on Donald Trump’s alleged long-term relationship with Russia. The documents contain references to compromising information the Russians purportedly gathered about the president-elect and accusations that Trump’s campaign was in regular contact with Russian officials. Within hours, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among many others, slammed the digital powerhouse for its decision, while pointing out that they, too, had seen the documents but declined to make them public.

BuzzFeed explained that it was publishing the dossier “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.” But the Post’s Erik Wemple countered that “Americans can only ‘make up their own minds’ if they build their own intelligence agencies, with a heavy concentration of operatives in Russia and Eastern Europe.” The Guardian, meanwhile, complained that BuzzFeed’s “decision…forced other media outlets to repeat the allegations or ignore a story that lit up the internet.” That writer was quick to note that his paper, too, “had obtained and reviewed the documents in recent weeks but declined to publish because there was no way to independently verify them.”

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The media’s full-throated condemnation of BuzzFeed is both self-righteous and self-serving. BuzzFeed noted up front that the documents contained “explosive–but unverified–information,” and Editor in Chief Ben Smith convincingly defended the decision in a staff memo, arguing that the dossier was being read and talked about “at the highest levels of American government and media. It seems to lie behind a set of vague allegations from the Senate Majority Leader to the director of the FBI and a report that intelligence agencies have delivered to the president and president-elect.”

By publishing the documents when it did, accompanied by strong caveats about their reliability, BuzzFeed put itself at the heart of the story and made some of its most prominent journalists go-to people for any tips the dossier might generate. The most typical kind of investigative reporting entails spending months or even years gathering documents and cultivating sources to build an unshakable edifice. BuzzFeed took a different but still well-established approach: Release what you can when you have it and see what new leads it generates. If this strategy pays off, the outlet that has morphed from a cat-video factory to a font of serious journalism could end up with some terrific scoops. You can almost hear the rest of the media muttering, “Damn, why didn’t we think of that first?”

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Several aspects of the mainstream media’s reaction demand further scrutiny. Some critics seem to be saying that unless the information in an intelligence briefing or other leaked document can be independently verified by reporters, it shouldn’t be published. But did reporters independently verify all the allegations against Hillary Clinton and her allies contained in the emails released by WikiLeaks? An October story in The Hill details the allegation that Donna Brazile passed a debate question to the Clinton campaign, and contains this caveat in the fourth paragraph: “The emails, which have been made public in batches by WikiLeaks, have been largely unconfirmed and are believed to have been stolen by Russian intelligence.” Brazile and CNN denied the allegations. Why was it acceptable to publish that story based on an email, and not documents whose content intelligence officials considered important enough to share with the president and president-elect?

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It’s also worth noting how many reporters apparently have had access to the documents for weeks or months (Mother Jones’s David Corn wrote about them back in October). That means an unknown number of top journalists have been trying–and apparently failing–to pin down these details, which is extraordinary since, as others have noted, “[t]his 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.”

So why hasn’t it been possible? And why are so many journalists describing the contents of these documents not just as “unverified,” but as unverifiable? The Post’s Margaret Sullivan was among those taking BuzzFeed to task, writing that “[i]n an era when trust in the media is already in the gutter, this does absolutely nothing to help.”

But does a media that sits indefinitely on a potentially gigantic story inspire greater public trust? Hardly.

Vanessa M. Gezari is the managing editor of CJR and author of The Tender Soldier, which came out in paperback in August 2014.