At his first press conference as president-elect, Donald Trump repeatedly slammed two of the biggest media companies in the country for publishing blockbuster articles claiming that Russia has compromising personal and financial information that it could use to blackmail him.
But Trump’s attack conflated two very different stories — eliding a swirling controversy inside the journalism profession about the approach of the outlets that published them, one with broader implications for how we understand the press’s relationship with Trump.
On Tuesday afternoon, CNN published an article alleging that US intelligence officials last week presented both President Obama and Trump with a two-page synopsis describing allegations that Russian operatives had sensitive information that would embarrass and undermine Trump, and that there was “a continuing exchange of information during the [presidential] campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”
According to CNN, the briefing was in part based on memos put together by a former British intelligence operative that the US intelligence agencies considered credible, but whose claims had yet to be verified.
Less than an hour and a half later, BuzzFeed decided to publish the actual memos that had been put together by the British ex-operative. The published memos were packed with salacious accusations, including stories of Trump hiring prostitutes, and notes on alleged connections between Trump’s team and the Kremlin.
The articles were hot topics at Trump’s press conference on Wednesday. Trump and Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, implied that they believed CNN and BuzzFeed had published identical allegations — and that the two news organizations were, in their eyes, equally guilty of spreading unsubstantiated and sensational rumors.
“The fact that BuzzFeed and CNN made the decision to run with this unsubstantiated claim is a sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks,” Spicer said at the beginning of the press conference. “The report is not an intelligence report, plain and simple.”
During the press conference, Trump rejected the claims of the memos and slammed both BuzzFeed and CNN.
“As far as BuzzFeed, which is a failing pile of garbage, I think they’re going to suffer the consequences,” Trump said. “They already are. And as far as CNN goes, they’re going out of their way to build it up.”
When CNN reporter Jim Acosta tried to defend CNN’s decision to publish its article, it led to a wild back and forth:
ACOSTA: Sir, since you're attacking us, can you give us a question?
TRUMP: (To another reporter) Go ahead.
ACOSTA: Since you're ...
ACOSTA: Mr. President-elect ...
TRUMP: No. Go ahead. Go ahead.
ACOSTA: Mr. President-elect, since you are attacking our news organization ...
TRUMP: No, not you. Not you.
ACOSTA: ... can you give us a chance?
TRUMP: Your organization is terrible. Your organization is terrible.
ACOSTA: You are attacking our news organization. Can you give us a chance to ask a question, sir?
TRUMP: Go ahead.
ACOSTA: Sir ...
TRUMP: Quiet. Quiet.
ACOSTA: Mr. President-elect, can you say categorically ...
TRUMP: Go ahead. She's asking a question. Don't be rude.
ACOSTA: Mr. President-elect, can you give us a question? You're attacking us. Can you give us a question?
TRUMP: Don't. Be. Rude. No, I'm not going to give you a question. I'm not going to give you a question. You are fake news.
Trump is famously thin-skinned, so it’s no surprise that he’s angry at both outlets for publishing articles raising questions about his character and, by extension, the legitimacy of his win.
It’s impossible to know whether Trump himself has read the two articles closely enough to understand that they're actually very different, or to realize that BuzzFeed may have inadvertently done him a favor by publishing the raw memos.
Trump’s strikingly pro-Russian positions have long sparked questions about his business dealings with Russia and the possibility that he's shaping his policies to fit the whims of Russian investors who have reportedly funded some of his business interests.
Trump has steadily refused to release financial data that could help resolve those questions one way or the other. Emboldened by the controversy surrounding the BuzzFeed article, he’s now trying to use a conflation of the reports as a way of dismissing the entire line of inquiry.
CNN and BuzzFeed’s reports differ in one crucial way
It’s important to understand that while the stories were similar, there was a key difference between them.
CNN’s scoop was about the intelligence briefings themselves — not the content of the memos. The story it broke was that four major US intelligence chiefs — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers — had presented the outgoing president and the incoming president-elect with a summary of allegations from sources they trusted that Russian operatives had compromising information on Trump.
CNN reported that the summary was partially based on the British ex-operative’s memos, which had been circulating among government officials and intelligence agencies and had been in the hands of many media organizations for many months. CNN said that the operative’s memos were originally generated as opposition research on behalf of a private firm seeking to dig up dirt on Trump, and that the FBI is currently investigating the truth of the memo’s claims.
But it reported that some of the intelligence community vetted the operative and his sources, and found some of them credible enough to take seriously — and thus worth mentioning to Obama and Trump.
The memos were filled with lots of juicy rumors, known to a number of outlets for months. But these outlets had refrained from publishing articles based on them because such claims couldn’t be verified or corroborated by independent sources. Given the enormity of the charges contained in the memos — and their salaciousness — almost all of the media outlets chose to simply sit on them.
BuzzFeed was an exception. Shortly after CNN’s report came out, BuzzFeed decided that the memos should be presented in full to the public and published them.
The BuzzFeed article included clearly stated caveats indicating that its claims were unverified, that some were “potentially unverifiable,” that it contained errors, and that it was prepared by political opponents of Trump. The memos were put up in full, with little additional analysis.
The case for and against BuzzFeed’s approach
As BuzzFeed probably expected, the decision brought in huge traffic — as of right now, the piece has more than 3 million views. But it also generated a huge amount of controversy in the journalistic community.
Critics like Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan, who is the former public editor of the New York Times, said that BuzzFeed’s document dump crossed the line. “It’s a bad idea, and always has been, to publish unverified smears,” she wrote.
She argued that most outlets were right to err on the side of not writing stories based on the memos, according to an ethos of “When in doubt, leave it out.”
BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith’s attitude is basically the opposite. Defending the decision to publish in a staff memo, he said, “Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing.”
A number of outlets also defended Smith’s decision. At Columbia Journalism Review, Vanessa Gezari argued that BuzzFeed was facing unfair standards for publishing the memos, in light of the fact that many publications share the contents of leaks and report them without first verifying their claims. And she suggested that publishing the memos has the benefit of accelerating the process of verification: “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,” she wrote. Richard Tofel, the president of the investigative journalism outfit ProPublica, echoed that claim.
CNN has gone to great lengths to make it clear that it doesn’t endorse BuzzFeed’s stance. Jake Tapper, one of the authors of the outlet’s article, has been defending his report on televised segments. “What I suspect we’re seeing here [by Trump] is an attempt to discredit legitimate, responsible attempts to report on this incoming administration with irresponsible journalism that hurts us all,” he said.
CNN even released a statement stressing that its article was “vastly different than BuzzFeed's decision to publish unsubstantiated memos” and so shouldn’t be treated as such:
We are fully confident in our reporting. It represents the core of what the First Amendment protects, informing the people of the inner workings of their government; in this case, briefing materials prepared for President Obama and President-elect Trump last week.
We made it clear that we were not publishing any of the details of the 35-page document because we have not corroborated the report's allegations. Given that members of the Trump transition team have so vocally criticized our reporting, we encourage them to identify, specifically, what they believe to be inaccurate.
But the CNN-BuzzFeed divergence on the memos isn’t the full story — there’s actually another twist.
The NBC/CNN dispute shows why raw documents can be confusing
On Wednesday, the day after the CNN and BuzzFeed articles came out, NBC published a report directly contradicting the CNN report on a number of levels. NBC claimed, based on its sources, that while the summary describing the allegations of Russia’s damning information on Trump had been prepared for presentation to Trump, he was in fact never briefed on it.
“A summary of the unverified reports was prepared as background material for the briefing, but not discussed during the meeting,” NBC states. Additionally — and this is crucial — NBC reported that the summary based on the memos was included in the briefing for context, so as “to draw the distinction for Trump between analyzed intelligence and unvetted ‘disinformation.’”
So NBC’s report is saying two things: 1) Trump wasn’t actually briefed on allegations that Russian operatives had sensitive information of his during his intelligence briefing; and 2) that if Trump had been briefed on it, it would’ve been to describe it as intentionally false or misleading information.
To drive home the contrast between this report and CNN’s: CNN’s article suggests that intelligence officials considered the memos to be unverified but fairly credible; NBC’s suggests that intelligence officials thought they were not credible and were instead designed to undermine Trump.
That difference is vital, and casts BuzzFeed’s article in two very different lights. If the rumor-packed memos are, as NBC’s report suggests, part of a disinformation campaign designed to undermine Trump and are not credible, then BuzzFeed’s decision to publish them looks irresponsible and potentially misleading at the expense of the public good.
But if CNN’s angle is the right one, then BuzzFeed’s decision to publish them looks significantly more defensible, and boosts Smith’s argument that the public deserved to be able to inspect something that was in wide circulation among both top government officials and the media.
Complicating things even further, on Wednesday night, Clapper, the director of national intelligence, released a statement that confirmed the existence of the prepared synopsis but said that “the IC [intelligence community] has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable.” As for why the synopsis was prepared, his language is inscrutably vague, saying that it was to provide policymakers with “the fullest possible picture of any matters that affect national security.”
In other words, it doesn’t really clear up the difference between CNN’s and NBC’s diverging perspectives on what the intelligence community really thinks about the truth of the allegations.
At the moment, it’s hard to harbor any convictions about what exactly is going on — there’s not enough verifiable information, and there are too many conflicting claims over the little information we do have.
Trump’s outrage over BuzzFeed’s controversial publishing decision is allowing him to lump other outlets’ more cautious reporting into his and his followers’ category of “fake news,” denigrate their legitimacy, and dodge crucial questions about records he has refused to reveal to the public. But Trump is always uneasy with unflattering media coverage and has a history of being adversarial toward publications for entirely conventional reporting that he simply dislikes. In other words, it’s entirely possible that he would’ve ended up livid with CNN even without BuzzFeed’s break from orthodoxy.