Ethics in journalism – no, for real this time.

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.

Universities are not the Real World (TM)

So I’ve been listening to Amicus for some time, and the most recent podcast had snippets from a symposium on free speech on campus. It was broad, but the three themes were: safe spaces, trigger warnings, and political correctness.

Each of these could be a post in their own right. I’ll begin by saying that these are three distinct concepts, and before any conversation can be had, it would behoove us to agree upon a definition. But the focus of my post isn’t to whittle these down to their component parts and try to dissect their importance (or lack thereof) on college campuses. Rather, I want to talk about this idea of free exchange of ideas vis-a-vis the “real world.”

Frequently this conversation begins with the role colleges play in young adult lives. The fact of the matter is that we don’t allow adolescents much exposure to real world conditions and, for those fortunate enough to go to school, we view this step as much one of personal maturation and exposure as we do academic learning.

This can be true on some fronts. You need to consider what you’re paying for college,  budget your money, budget your time, network, determine what a proper major is and how that will relate back to employability, etc etc.

But when it comes to the conversations we have on campus, this is not the real world, and I don’t mean that in a protective way. I generally subscribe to the idea that universities are sacrosanct as a place of research and intellectual dialogue. It’s important to preserve these forums; historically, they have been the epicenter of academic exchange. More importantly, unlike other contexts where we exchange ideas  (like political contexts), the norms here are more attuned to civil discourse where parties are there to learn and probe at each other’s ideas, with the ideal being the “better” idea wins. This isn’t how it always plays out, and there is the risk of giving unequal proposals undeserving equal dignity, but these are exceptions to what is otherwise a good general rule.

Which brings me to my point: this is not what we do in the real world. The conversations you have on a college campus would probably land you in HR real fast at your real world job. We joke about how politics and religion are no-go places during dinner conversations and family events. Topics we discuss with peers we frankly don’t know very well are welcomed in universities, whereas there are some conversations we simply will not have with people we care about because they’re too divisive, sticky, or otherwise hazardous terrain to navigate.

There are some peculiar situations, like law schools talking about rape law, where this exposure really is both professional and personal, but I’m not willing to make such a broad statement about universities and young people based on a specific post-graduate profession and a class of people who, frankly, are going to be much older than the those we commonly think of when we talk about college.

So when we talk about college being a place for kids to become adults – a place where they can wade into real world waters – let’s remember that this truly entails. The need to maintain robust conversational landscapes at universities is crucial, but you can’t argue that it occupies this unique space in liberal society on the one hand, and yet have it be something so pedestrian that you will perish in the real world without it. The real world is a carefully curated place, at least when it comes to the conversations we have for the vast majority of our day, and ultimately that’s primarily what this debate centers around: what we can say and to whom we say it. It’s fundamentally disingenuous to portray college students as uniquely sensitive when an entire professional and social culture has revolved and grown around previous generations’ careful cultivation of manners and etiquette the exclude the same, if not more, topics.