Tons of thoughts swirling about Buzzfeed’s decision to post the unverified dossier on alleged Trump actions while in Russia.
Pardon my sarcasm: but I’m sure many of you can take a hint with words like “unverified” and alleged.”
My sarcasm stems from the rather patronizing admonishments towards Buzzfeed, which seemingly revolve around the understanding that readers are going to be misled by its publication — a publication Buzzfeed took great pains to explicitly note had not been corroborated.
If it’s not verified, why publish? Because the newsworthiness of this publication was primarily in that it existed; that politicians and journalists alike knew of its existence; that politicians and journalists were talking about it; that Trump and Obama were both briefed on its existence; that John McCain had passed this to the FBI prior to Election Day; that there are facts consistent with the allegation that Trump (either directly or through his campaign staff) have some connection with Russia, and; this connection could range anywhere from deliberate and nefarious to incidental and potentially reckless.
Even if this turns out to be false – and I suspect a lot of it probably is – few people (if any) are defending this on the basis of absurdity. There’s enough of a brick wall of concern regarding Trump’s business and potential Russian ties that keeps this within the realm of plausibility. That’s not just newsworthy; that should get over the hump for official inquiries and investigation.
It’s frankly absurd that the political and media class get to blanketly gatekeep information highly relevant to the American people both as voters and as citizens. For the latter, this should increase demand for Congress to require some kind of disclosure on behalf of Trump with respect to his international business ties, including, potentially, Russian ones. Likewise, the allegation that his staffers, some of whom have a direct working relationship with powerful Russians, visited Prague, is especially disconcerting in light of confirmed intelligence reports of Russian interference with our election. All of this makes the mere existence of this publication material to our interests.
Moreover, it begs into question why James Comey made the unprecedented decision to release two letters on the cusp of the election regarding Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, but not with respect to the existence of this rough report. Comey made this release before warrant with any kind of specific request was made; there was no concrete knowledge of what those recently found emails entailed (it ended up being nothing) but it was nonetheless deemed important for voters to know.
I understand the concern about feeding the right wing narrative that the media is out to get them. I also get that now the right has co-opted the fake news concerns, framing themselves as the victim. These are bad, yes, but given a call between free information for democratic readership and the continued attempt to discredit the media, the former wins.
It’s important that news media play their hand carefully with respect to maintaining and rebuilding their credibility, but that was lost in a separate conversation about false equivalencies and disproportionate critique of candidates. The narrative that the media is part of some vast left wing conspiracy to harm Republican interests is, however, not new, and the attempts by many outlets to assuage their fears by cow-towing to them is what got us to that coverage issue in the first place. Moreover, while this is an important conversation to have, it’s more about reputation-building and narrative-crafting. Ethics are not dictated by how well those ethics are received. They simply are, and let’s not conflate the “Was this ethical?” conversation with machinations.
As a reader, I’m personally glad Buzzfeed published the report. Knowing it was unverified, I took the substantive part of it with a grain of salt. My main takeaway was that someone considered credible had this information, passed it to his contacts, and my government sat on it. Meanwhile, they were bending over backwards to accommodate and, arguably, fan an e-mail scandal close to election day where there was a heightened potential of influencing its outcome. (Update: boom.)
The publication hammered home not just that some amorphous report was out there, yet another intelligence report on the Russians lost in a sea of intelligence reports about the Russians and Trump. Armed with this information, it only bolsters my concerns and suspicions about the tie between my president-elect and a nation hostile not just to our government, but the ideals upon which that government was formed. That goes a lot farther than “salacious.”
I don’t begrudge other outlets for their timidity. Media ethics have long told reporters that they’re gatekeepers in the sense that publishing unverified information without context can be misleading and fraudulent. However, I think whether something is misleading turns an awful lot on the circumstances and the information provided. If everybody part of a special class gets to talk about unclassified reports and it can be clearly published as an unverified, uncorroborated report, I’d respectfully request that they give readers some benefit of the doubt that they know what those words mean.