Last week, President-elect Donald Trump held his first press conference since being elected. While the meeting was supposed to allow Mr. Trump to lay out his proposal on how he will unravel himself from his many conflict of interest issues, the conversation quickly turned to an intelligence briefing for Mr. Trump – specifically a 2-page synopsis of a 35-page report that did not come from the IC stating that Russia had compromising information on him.
The story about the document was first reported by CNN. However, CNN, correctly, did not report any of details because of the lack of corroboration. The full report was published by BuzzFeed, an Internet news organization that describes itself as “a social news and entertainment company.”
I’m not sure what that means.
While I visited the site to see what news stories they offer, I don’t make a habit of reading BuzzFeed. In 2013, I posted a three-part story about the questionable death of BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings. I spent a month running down many story links to try and determine the truth of the reporter’s death. That truth came in a coroner’s report and from Hastings’ own brother that Hastings, sober for 14 years, had relapsed and his brother was attempting to take him to detox.
BuzzFeed and others promoted much of the suspicion surrounding Hastings’ death setting in motion a false conspiracy theory that has since been debunked.
Returning to the latest controversy, BuzzFeed, was among many news organizations that had obtained a 35-page report — originally prepared as opposition research — by a former British intelligence officer. The report had been circulated around Washington, D.C. for months. However, mainstream media, rightly, avoided releasing the report because the details could not be substantiated. The story gained traction after it was discovered that a two-page summary of the report was given to Mr. Trump at that intelligence briefing.
Commenting on the leaking of the report at his press conference, Trump said, “I think it was disgraceful — disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. I think it’s a disgrace, and I say that — and I say that, and that’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do. I think it’s a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public.
“As far as Buzzfeed,” Trump continued, “…writing it, I think they’re going to suffer the consequences. They already are. And as far as CNN going out of their way to build it up…”
Let’s take a closer look at three parts of Trump’s statement.
For the record, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement saying, in part:
In a private phone conversation Mr. Trump and I “…discussed the private security company document, which was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC became aware of it. I emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC. The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions.”
As of this writing, there is zero evidence that the IC preemptively released the dossier to the press. As Clapper states, the document “was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before [emphasis added] the IC became aware of it.”
There are simply too many others in Washington that could’ve easily leaked the document.
BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith released a statement explaining his decision-making. In part, it reads:
“We published the dossier… so that… ‘Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.’
“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. … In this case, the document was in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media. …
“As we noted in our story, there is serious reason to doubt the allegations. We have been chasing specific claims in this document for weeks, and will continue to.
“Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice. But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”
From an ethical standpoint, the “presumption to be transparent/Americans can make up their own minds” argument does not hold up. While I strongly support a news organization’s mission as watchdog – holding politicians accountable – to release a document that remains unsubstantiated lowers the bar of responsible journalism.
Even the statement, “there is serious reason to doubt the allegations,” along with “we have been chasing specific claims… for weeks…” does not lessen their irresponsibility in the matter. Journalists “of good will” wait until you they have evidence of claims.
However, I am particularly troubled by Smith’s last statement: “publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”
Smith seems to suggest that journalistic standards have somehow changed, making it acceptable to publish unconfirmed reports. That would literally open the door, and make acceptable, an avalanche of unproven stories ultimately eroding how people perceive information with a serious price to pay on the decisions we all make.
As I’ve done in the past, let me quote ethicist Michael Josephson’s Ethical Principles of Journalism. “The powers of the press should be treated as a public trust. Journalists must inspire credibility – faith and confidence in the honesty, accuracy and fairness of the information they convey.”
However, while Mr. Trump was correct in calling out BuzzFeed, he incorrectly criticized CNN in general and political reporter Jim Acosta, specifically.
Acosta: Can you give us a question since 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.
Acosta: Can you state…
Trump: You are fake news.
Trump was not only inaccurate in his claim that CNN was “fake news,” but wrong for not allowing Acosta to do his job.
A disturbing pattern is emerging from Mr. Trump. Any individual or institution — in this case, the media and the intelligence community — are immediately suspect as “fake” or “phony” whenever they challenge or attempt to correct the president-elect. Mr. Trump has overreacted to many reports regarding the hacking by Russia of election material with the belief that the IC is personally attacking his legitimacy as president-elect, and he made his displeasure known in several interviews before sitting down to receive his in-depth briefing. In fact, the IC never challenged Trump’s legitimacy.
Trump’s attack against CNN was another example of jumping to a false conclusion that the news organization had placed a link on their website to BuzzFeed, which Trump’s incoming senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway stated in an interview with Anderson Cooper. After the contentious conversation, Cooper checked the story, again and reported: “There’s no link to Buzzfeed. Full stop.”
On its website, CNN issued a public statement responding to Trump’s false accusatoin. In part, it reads:
“CNN’s decision to publish carefully sourced reporting about the operations of our government is vastly different than BuzzFeed’s decision to publish unsubstantiated memos. …
“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.”
As of this writing, Trump and his transition team have not responded.