The Media Today

BuzzFeed’s Trump–Cohen scoop is not dead yet

January 22, 2019

Late last Thursday, BuzzFeed dropped a bombshell. Reporters Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold—who have blazed a trail reporting on Trump’s business ties to Russia—wrote that the president told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow, and that Robert Mueller learned of the directive thanks to witness testimony and corroborating documents from inside the Trump Organization.

While no other outlet could confirm BuzzFeed’s reporting, the story fed a frantic news cycle through Friday. Impeachment talk swelled as Congressional Democrats demanded answers. Late in the day, however, the tone dramatically changed. Peter Carr—the Mueller spokesperson known in some circles as “Mr. No Comment”—took the rare step not just of commenting, but of actively denying parts of the story. “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate,” Carr said. Suddenly, the prevailing question in coverage was not whether BuzzFeed had finally nailed Trump, but whether its story could be trusted at all.

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As details of Cormier and Leopold’s reporting process emerged, some of the steps they said they took invited scrutiny. On Sunday, CNN’s Brian Stelter took Cormier and Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor, to task over what he called their “shockingly casual” request for comment—showing on screen an email (provided by BuzzFeed) in which Leopold told Carr only the story’s headline contention, without mentioning the supporting claim that Mueller knows about it and has evidence to back it up. Stelter’s colleague Oliver Darcy, meanwhile, pointed out that it wasn’t immediately clear whether Cormier or Leopold had seen any of that evidence themselves: Cormier said they had not, whereas Leopold suggested they had. Speaking to Stelter on Sunday, Cormier declined to clear that up, citing his duty to protect sources.

The statement from Mueller’s office, however, also raises questions. Its existence, in defiance of a tight-lipped norm, gives it undeniable weight; as the Post reported, it was viewed inside the Justice Department as “a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect.” But commentators should be careful not to treat the special counsel’s office—whose inner workings are opaque—as the infallible, benevolent voice of God. In any case, the statement neither kills the central essence of the story (it does not take a position on whether Trump did, in fact, tell Cohen to lie), nor specifies exactly what Mueller thinks BuzzFeed got wrong.

Just as the breathless early coverage of BuzzFeed’s story was over the top, so, too, were reports of its death. As the Post’s Aaron Blake put it on Friday, “Just like we shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions about BuzzFeed’s report, we shouldn’t just assume it was completely botched based upon one denial, no matter how authoritative the denier.” BuzzFeed could not be clearer that it stands by the entirety of its reporting, and so its story is still very much alive.

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As unsatisfying as it sounds, the most sensible position is to wait and see how this one plays out—even if that means leaving the 24-hour news beast unfed. A tweet by NYU Professor Jay Rosen still resonates two days after he wrote it: “There’s missing information here, and until it comes out having an opinion is hazardous.”

Below, more on BuzzFeed’s story:

  • “Limbo land”: Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo writes that reporters on the Mueller beat are struggling to reconcile the gap between the special counsel’s forceful denial and BuzzFeed’s forceful defense of its work. BuzzFeed seems “so damn sure, and I can’t tell if that’s real confidence because their sources are crazy good, or confidence because they know the implications of being wrong,” one source tells Pompeo. The Times’s Jim Rutenberg, meanwhile, writes that the story is in “limbo land.”
  • “Beware the permanent exclusive”: Hours before BuzzFeed dropped its bombshell, the Post’s Erik Wemple had this prescient warning about the dangers of breaking a story that rival outlets can’t corroborate. “Every journalist loves to produce an exclusive, but no journalist wants a permanent exclusive,” Wemple writes.
  • “A bad day for us”: After the special counsel’s office released its statement on Friday, several commentators suggested BuzzFeed’s carelessness would reflect badly on the media as a whole. “This is a bad day for us,” Jeffrey Toobin said on CNN, “It reinforces every stereotype about the news media.” Charlie Warzel, who recently left BuzzFeed for the Times, was among those to hit back. “To suggest gloomily that it’s a ‘bad day for us’ seems to be allowing those who suggest the media is the enemy of the people to own the narrative, no?” he asked on Twitter. “Doesn’t it give credibility to those who frequently and baselessly try to destroy trust in the media as a whole?”
  • “Vindicated”: In January 2017, before Trump was even inaugurated, BuzzFeed split the journalism world in two when it decided to publish, in its entirety, an explosive dossier containing unverified allegations about Trump’s ties to the Kremlin. While BuzzFeed’s latest story is very different, it’s worth remembering that the widespread condemnation of its ethics that followed the dossier has not aged well, as I wrote last month.
  • “Hypothetical”: The BuzzFeed story is still moving forward. Yesterday, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN’s Pamela Brown and Laura Jarrett that the president’s legal team reached out to the special counsel’s office prior to Friday’s statement. He would not give further details. Giuliani also sought to walk back comments he made over the weekend suggesting that Trump and Cohen’s 2016 conversations about Trump Tower Moscow may have continued right up to Election Day.

Other notable stories:

  • A viral video appearing to show high-schoolers in MAGA hats mocking a Native American man near the Lincoln Memorial sparked a cycle of online outrage over the weekend. Some commentators (particularly on the right) claimed different footage of the incident exonerated the students, and condemned those who’d rushed to judge. But then came the backlash to the backlash to the backlash, as others (particularly on the left) insisted that the kids’ behavior looked just as racist in the longer video. As reporters worked to paint a fuller picture, takes overflowed. Writing in The Atlantic, Julie Irwin Zimmerman said the episode was a political Rorschach test (“tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of other issues”), while Ian Bogost argued that we should stop trusting viral videos.
  • It’s day 32 of the government shutdown, and, at risk of sounding like a broken record, the end does not appear to be in sight. Among the federal workers affected are journalists at US state-backed broadcaster Voice of America, who have worked without pay to report the news. CNN’s Stelter has more.
  • The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner interviewed Jill Abramson, the former editor of the Times, on her new book about the future of the media business. After passages of a proof were called out on Twitter last week—most strongly by Vice journalists who said they’d been misrepresented—Abramson told Chotiner she didn’t think she had dismissed their talent, and that the book has been fact-checked.
  • Fox & Friends briefly aired a graphic yesterday stating that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. (She has not.) The network later apologized, blaming “a technical error that emanated from the graphics team,” Mediaite’s Ken Meyer reports.
  • Carlos Fernando Chamorro, one of Nicaragua’s best-known journalists and editor of news website Confidencial, has gone into exile in Costa Rica after armed police raided and ransacked his newsroom, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips reports. The development furthered Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s vicious clampdown on press freedom. For a useful primer on the topic, read Charles Davis’s November report for CJR.
  • In Libya, Mohamed Ben Khalifa, a photographer and video journalist, was killed on Saturday after a militia he was accompanying in Tripoli came under fire. “With his sharp eye for detail, Ben Khalifa captured the attempts by ordinary Libyans to carve out normal lives amid the turmoil of the past decade,” the AP reports.
  • For CJR, I talked to New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe about his new book, Say Nothing, a gripping history of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
  • And while the long weekend may be over, you should still make time for Robert A. Caro’s deep reflection, in The New Yorker, on his life’s work researching and writing about Lyndon B. Johnson. In one especially resonant section, Caro recalls moving to Johnson’s native Texas after his subjects there saw him as an East Coast parachute journalist. “As soon as the people of the Hill Country realized we were there to stay, their attitude toward us softened; they started to talk to me in a different way,” he writes.

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Disclosure: Jon Allsop, the writer of this article, worked for BuzzFeed on a three-month internship in 2017. This note has been added since this article was first published.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.