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Was BuzzFeed wrong to publish the Trump dossier? This media ethicist says yes.

“They were serving themselves and their own clicks.” –Kelly McBride, vice president of Poynter

President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Press Conference In New York Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, BuzzFeed published a dossier full of unsubstantiated claims about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. The piece ran shortly after CNN released a report on potentially “compromising personal and financial information” that Russia might have on President-elect Trump.

First, there’s a lot we don’t know. As Vox’s Yochi Dreazen writes, “We don’t know who CNN’s sources are or if those people’s information is accurate. We don’t know which Trump aides were allegedly dealing with the Russians or whether those Russians worked for Vladimir Putin’s government. And we don’t know the answer to the biggest question of them all: Just what does Russia have on Trump?”

Nevertheless, CNN’s decision to run with the story was a sound one. It may be anonymously sourced, but we know for a fact that America’s intelligence agencies briefed Trump and President Obama about Russia’s possession of potentially damaging information. That alone is indicative of the seriousness of the claims.

But BuzzFeed’s decision to release the actual dossier detailing the allegations against Trump (which include “perverted sexual acts” supposedly recorded by Russian agents) is far more questionable. Indeed, it has ignited a storm of controversy, both about the truthfulness of the claims and about the journalistic ethics of the organization that published them.

For my part, BuzzFeed’s report is questionable at best, counterproductive at worst. Questionable because there is no solid foundation for the claims outlined in the dossier. What we have is a document produced by a man named Christopher Steele, whom the BBC has identified as a retired MI6 agent who had been posted in Moscow and now runs a consultancy firm in London.

We also know that the document exists only because it was commissioned by an anti-Trump Super PAC during the Republican primaries and later funded by an anonymous Democratic Party backer. Some — or perhaps all — of the claims might be true, but we simply don’t know at this point. All that can be said now is that several news organizations have been working to substantiate the claims for months, and none were able to do so.

The report is counterproductive because it feeds directly into Trump’s narrative about a corrupt and unreliable media. By printing this without any corroboration, BuzzFeed has presented Trump with a rare gift: an accurate talking point. Worse, should the story turn out to be false (or even if it remains unsubstantiated), Trump will use that fact to discredit future probes into his countless conflicts of interest, which are real and alarming.

The veracity of the BuzzFeed dossier will be questioned obsessively in the coming weeks. One hopes the truth will become clearer. My interest here is in examining the ethics and implications of BuzzFeed’s decision to print the dossier without knowing if the claims therein were true.

To that end, I spoke with Kelly McBride, the vice president of Poynter, a nonprofit media institute based in St. Petersburg, Florida. McBride is the leading media ethicist at Poynter and a critic of BuzzFeed’s “when in doubt, publish” approach.

I asked her why she thinks BuzzFeed got this wrong and how their decision might ultimately benefit Trump.

Sean Illing

Let’s start with the obvious question: Was BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the Trump dossier justifiable?

Kelly McBride

Not by the standards of professional journalism. The professional journalists that I work with take their responsibility to verify information, add context to it, and present it to the audience in a way that the audience can make sense of it — they take that responsibility quite seriously. And there didn’t seem to be any attempt to do any of that on BuzzFeed’s part.

Instead, they simply dumped the document on the internet without any idea of its accuracy.

Sean Illing

Richard Tofel, the president of ProPublica, argued that BuzzFeed’s release of the dossier will help accelerate the discovery of what is true and false in it. Do you buy that argument?

Kelly McBride

No, I think the opposite will happen. I think we will slow the vetting of the information in the dossier. And even when we do get it sorted out, we will have a harder time convincing the audience of what’s true and what isn’t, because everyone will have already made up their mind.

So thanks in part to this dossier being published, we’re now less likely to get at the truth, and when we do, the audience is less likely to listen to it.

Sean Illing

The fact that BuzzFeed had to shoehorn a host of caveats into the report is itself a sign that it was too speculative to print.

Kelly McBride

I think the real problem is the impact this has had on the conversation. Before BuzzFeed published the dossier, the conversation that we were having, and CNN was leading on the reporting, was that four senior intelligence officers or officials were so concerned that they had briefed both the president and president-elect on the existence of this dossier and what they were doing in response to this dossier.

Now that is a very different story than asking about whether the contents of the dossier are accurate. So we’ve gone from looking at the fact that there was a report that the Russians had compromising information to trying to figure out if the information itself is true or not. Those are two completely different stories. And you saw Donald Trump very effectively dismiss them both.

He lumped CNN and BuzzFeed together and called all of it “fake news.” And that’s what happens when you hand people the bat to beat you with. You paint a target on yourself and undercut your own arguments.

Sean Illing

How should media organizations balance their commitment to responsible reporting with the public’s (legitimate) demand for full transparency? Is there an unavoidable tension here?

Kelly McBride

You can be transparent and responsible at the same time. These are not mutually exclusive goals. In this case, for instance, you can be transparent and say that you have the dossier but that you’ve verified nothing. Moreover, you tell the readers what you’re doing to verify the information, and explain your findings along the way.

This wasn’t an act of transparency on BuzzFeed’s part. I have no idea what they think they were doing here. As far as I can tell, this was an act of dumping information on the internet to see what happens.

Sean Illing

Are you worried about a dangerous precedent being set here?

Kelly McBride

Well, journalists don’t follow precedent in the way that lawyers do. There is such a thing as pack reporting, but I don’t think this will lead to that. In most cases, when you have stuff like stolen emails, journalists take an extra responsibility to ensure their veracity, because you know the motive of the person who handed this to you is questionable.

This doesn’t mean that one ought to ignore information like this. Leaked and stolen information is a fact of life, and journalists would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand. But there are responsible ways to handle sensitive or stolen information. Most journalists still believe, rightly, that information like this confers an extra level of responsibility to verify it.

So I don’t think BuzzFeed’s decision to print this dossier will usher in a paradigm shift on this front.

Sean Illing

The logic of BuzzFeed’s defense does seem to extend well beyond this particular case. If Americans have a right to “make up their own minds” about these allegations, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so in any or all cases?

Kelly McBride

That argument is handy when Americans have the tools that they need in order to make up their own mind. But in this case, they don’t have such tools. Here we have information that is very difficult — perhaps impossible — to verify, and it’s unfair to ask the average citizen to just make up his mind. That’s impractical and counterproductive.

What we’ll have in this case is people simply believing whatever they want, whatever their gut tells them. The average citizen has absolutely no capacity to make up his own mind on this.

So what good does printing this do if it can’t be established as fact?

Sean Illing

How unusual were BuzzFeed’s actions here? Can you cite examples of news organizations doing something comparable to this?

Kelly McBride

If you recall when CBS and 60 Minutes were investigating whether Bush got a pass during Vietnam, they published a forged document. And what that essentially did was shut down all other reporting. Of course, we now know that the story was true and that Bush did get a pass, but we stopped talking about that. Such was the chilling effect on the reporting. The story was accurate but the documents published were not, and it harmed the truth for a long period of time. So that’s one example.

Another example is the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg hands the Pentagon Papers over to the New York Times, and they spend a lot of time verifying that this report was real, that it was handed to the right people, that people had seen it before they started publishing it. Now, the information in the report turned out to be the most interesting thing about it. And when they started publishing it, because it was so damning, the government made attempts to quash the reporting of it.

Now, if the press hadn’t done its due diligence, the government could have just dismissed the story altogether. They could have said, “You see, it’s not even real.” The story would have faded away. And that’s why you have to get it right the first time.

So those are just two examples, one positive and one negative, that show how when you do publish information, especially a sensitive or leaked document, you have to verify the contents of it.

Sean Illing

My concern is that BuzzFeed’s publication of this dossier will have the unintended effect of making it easier for Trump to discredit legitimate probes into his numerous conflicts of interest.

Is that your concern as well?

Kelly McBride

Absolutely! Trump now gets to paint the media with a broad brush. Of course, this is what he has been doing, but now his case will appear more defensible.

Sean Illing

BuzzFeed will say that they only printed the dossier after CNN first reported on the story. The problem, though, is that their overreach will allow Trump to blot out the legitimate reporting done by CNN (and other outlets).

Indeed, that’s exactly what Trump’s press secretary did at his press conference yesterday when he conflated the two stories.

Kelly McBride

Right, which is why we have to ask: Who was BuzzFeed serving here? So CNN decided they had enough information to start telling the public that the president and the president-elect had been briefed about these allegations. And then BuzzFeed decided to publish the dossier. But who are they serving?

One possible answer is that they were serving themselves and their own clicks. They needed to assert their own relevance as opposed to serving the public’s interest.

Sean Illing

Is there a case to be made that if BuzzFeed hadn’t published the documents now, this story might have been swept under the rug?

Kelly McBride

Well, you can always release a document later. What you cannot do is unring a bell.

Sean Illing

So how should the press cover Trump moving forward?

Kelly McBride

I think you have to do two things. I think you have to divide your public policy team in the newsroom. If I were an editor, I would enhance the resources that I have to cover the administration and public policy, and then I would divide them into categories. And at any given time, I would have people who are basically like a breaking news team, and they’re on hand to respond to the tweets and quickly add context and figure out what’s going on.

And then I would have other people that are working on long-term projects like trying to confirm what’s in the dossier or trying to examine his business conflicts of interests or just answer the question [of whether] he’s been compromised by the Russians or trying to get his tax returns. And I would look at every single question closely and carefully.

Sean Illing

I take it you saw Trump’s press conference yesterday. Thoughts?

Kelly McBride

If you noticed today at his press conference, the reporters made a common mistake that drives me insane. They were all asking double- and triple-barreled questions. We now have a ton of science about how you interview people and ask questions. When you ask questions like this, you cede your power to the person answering the question because you just gave them a smorgasbord to pick from. And so they will naturally pick the easiest question to answer, and they will ignore the one that they really should answer.

So reporters did that over and over again, and Trump responded predictably. The most interesting question was from a reporter who asked, “Did anyone on your staff have any contact with Russia?” Trump didn’t answer that question because he skipped to the second part of the question. And this is what he has always done. It’s how he plays the press, how he avoids accountability.

We have to do a better job of making it more difficult for him to do this.

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