Why BuzzFeed published the Trump dossier

National news media can't agree whether or not BuzzFeed was justified in releasing a 35-page document filled with unconfirmed allegations regarding President Donald Trump.

Jan 25, 2017 at 1:15 pm

National news media can’t agree whether buzzfeed.com erred when it published the 35-page compendium of salacious rumors about Donald Trump in Moscow.

Hewing to traditional journalism ethics, many editors sat on the unproven smears even after intelligence agencies gave a summary to Trump, Obama and others. 

However, buzzfeed.com saw that as justification for publishing the entire dossier with editor Ben Smith’s warning that it couldn’t verify any of the allegations. 

The Guardian quoted Smith, saying, “They not just had it, they were starting to act on it. … When you have an object that is in play, that is having consequences for the way our elected leaders are acting, you do have to ask the question of why should I suppress that? There are then good reasons (to run it). Once it emerges in the public conversation that there is this secret document floating around full of dark allegations that we will not refer to, then I feel in this era you really have to show your readers what that is in an appropriate context.”

Unverified doesn’t mean false. The dossier was compiled by a former British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officer who’d served in Moscow and MI6’s Russia desk. It says Russia’s FSB spy agency “has compromised Trump through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.” 

BuzzFeed editor Smith said his decision to publish the Moscow dossier “reflected how we see the job of reporters in 2017.” 

He told MSNBC, “There was an era when you would be the gatekeeper for information and you would say to your audience: ‘Trust us, we are keeping things from you, we have lots of secrets we’re not telling you, but you should trust us.’ You could say that was a good era, that was a bad era, but that is not the present day.”

When MSNBC countered that “it is never acceptable to publish rumor or innuendo,” Smith replied: “We are now in an era when you have to engage in false statements. It’s an environment where you no longer have the luxury and where the legacy media has at times turned away from saying there’s all the crazy stuff on the internet and said we’re not going to touch it, we’re going to stay out of it, we’re just going to let it spread. I think this is a place where sunlight is a disinfectant.”

Various news media said the dossier initially was funded by anti-Trump Republicans and later by Democrats.

Trump says the news media lied when they reported the existence and purported contents of the Moscow dossier. He’s wrong. The reporting was accurate: It said there is a potentially compromising dossier and a summary was presented to Trump and Obama. That’s true irrespective of the truth or falsity of the dossier contents. Trump’s responses reinforce decades of cynical GOP claims about what they call the lying liberal media. 

When I went to the USSR as an aspiring photojournalist in 1960, I assumed any hotel room was bugged and the crone at her desk on every floor reported my comings and goings. I also assumed that nothing much would come of it unless, later in my career, the KGB thought the threat of some embarrassing youthful indiscretion might win my cooperation. 

• I was kidding when I wrote that Trump was moving the White House pressroom to Washington’s Trump International Hotel. Instead, he moved farther afield. He gave his first press conference since the election — involving even his official press secretary-in-waiting — at Trump Tower in New York. How’s that for a self-serving and family-enriching commercial for his brand and properties? 

• White House reporters spend careers waiting for the president to recognize them by name at press conferences. It could get worse. I don’t know if there will be “White House reporters” after Trump moves in. Twitter may have made them extinct. 

• Trump preferred his personal bodyguards to Secret Service protection before inauguration. Most news media dropped the story with another “it’s just Trump.” What I haven’t seen is reporters asking why Trump received a highly classified briefing in his New York hotel headquarters instead of a secure location. Don’t intel officials remember the bugs Soviets placed in the U.S. seal on a wall in our Moscow Embassy? 

• Cincinnati lawyer Dan Hoffheimer was shot near his Walnut Hills home Jan. 1 when he apparently drove into a crossfire. The Sunday Enquirer carried the story Jan. 8. 

Have the Enquirer’s police sources and contacts in the legal community deteriorated so far that no one in the newsroom knew? Did no one think it worth calling the paper?

Local lawyers knew and spread the word; one showed me an email he’d received. When I put Hoffheimer’s name into Google, nothing about a shooting appeared. 

• NPR’s media reporter said presenter Megyn Kelly’s move to NBC left a “yawning gap” in the Fox News lineup. “Yawning” is the word; does anyone who doesn’t get their news from People Magazine care what happens to Kelly? Or any other presenter?

• Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos is an often offensive provocateur on the alt-right’s favorite website. 

When Simon & Schuster agreed to publish Milo’s book, DangerousChicago Review of Books said it would boycott that book and all of the publisher’s offerings. 

That provoked the National Coalition Against Censorship to support the publisher. The coalition protest included the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Foundation, American Booksellers Association, Association of American Publishers, National Council of Teachers of English, Author’s Guild, Index on Censorship and Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Breitbart approvingly published the coalition statement, which said, in part, “Threats to boycott publishers undermine intellectual freedom and harm readers and writers. … In the present case, the calls for a boycott stem not from the the content of a book, which has not been published, but because of previous statements by the author which critics characterize as hate speech.”

Days after the brouhaha over Milo’s new book, protests forced University of California, Davis Republicans to cancel a campus speech by Milo. University officials said the risk of violence was too great. 

• On June, 27, 2014, Steve Bannon gave a rousing defense of Christendom to the Institute for Human Dignity at the Vatican. Bannon should have been news, given his prominence at the nationalistic, xenophobic Breitbart News Network. 

Only recently did the New York Times report the speech, and it was to fault his theology. My search of the Times database found no story from 2014. 

Now, Bannon’s really big news: Trump’s chief policy advisor. It’s no secret that the Times disapproves of the far-right politics of Breitbart, Bannon and Trump in general. 

I’m still puzzling if the Times bureau in Rome missed Bannon’s speech or if editors New York killed it. 

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]