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Publishing the Trump dossier: Inevitable or unjustifiable?

On Tuesday evening, CNN reported that senior U.S. intelligence chiefs had presented classified documents to President Barack Obama, President-elect Donald J. Trump, and high-ranking congressmen alleging that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Trump.

The documents included a two-page synopsis of “what appeared to be Russian interference in the 2016 election,” CNN reported. The synopsis was based on 35 pages of memos that originated as opposition research on Trump.

Trump forcefully disputed the claims during a Wednesday afternoon press conference and on Twitter, calling it “fake news” and “a total political witch hunt.”

While CNN described the sensitive nature of claims found in the uncorroborated 35-page dossier without publishing it, Buzzfeed opted to publish it in its entirety Wednesday evening.

We asked two School of Journalism faculty members—director Jonathan Kaufman and associate professor Dan Kennedy, a nationally known media commentator—to weigh in on the thorny issue of what to publish and when. Contending that the information would have leaked anyway, Kaufman supported BuzzFeed’s decision to publish. On the other side, Kennedy feared the decision would result in a public backlash against the press.

Can you offer any solid reason for publishing the dossier? Most major news outlets, including The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, have come out very strongly against BuzzFeed’s decision.

Kennedy: There were two important calculations that were made by news organizations. One was whether to report the news that top intelligence officials had briefed President-elect Trump and President Obama about classified documents reflecting personal and financial information Russian intelligence had obtained about Trump that could be used to put him in a compromising situation. CNN absolutely made the right call in publishing that story. This is important information involving our next president and the intelligence community, and the public has a right to know it.

The Trump presidency represents an extraordinary challenge to the role of the press in a democratic society. We do not help ourselves when we abandon our standards in favor of pursuing clicks and indulging in rank speculation.
—Dan Kennedy, associate professor in the School of Journalism

At the same time, the documents reflect raw intelligence of the sort that is often wrong. Apparently a number of news organizations have had this material for quite some time, and none of them published because they could not verify their truthfulness. BuzzFeed acknowledged that the documents hadn’t been verified and included some details that were wrong. We’ve already learned that a particularly explosive allegation involving one of Trump’s lawyers, Michael Cohen, was actually about someone else who is also named Michael Cohen.

Essentially BuzzFeed played right into the narrative being pushed by Trump and his supporters—that the media cannot be trusted and are out to get him by promoting “fake news.”

In light of BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the intelligence dossier in its entirety, can you see any benefits to having that information now disseminated so widely? Do you think it will impact public trust in the media, in Trump and his administration, or in government at large?

Kaufman: I don’t think it is a question of benefit. Given that the intelligence agencies shared the information with President-elect Trump and President Obama and it was circulating on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, it was correct of BuzzFeed and CNN to publish what they did, and the information was bound to be disclosed or leaked. It is hard to know just what the impact will be. Trump has in many ways turned out to be Teflon to many revelations that would have damaged other candidates. We will have to see what happens here.

How is BuzzFeed the same, or different, from news organizations like The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post? How might these differences affect decisions regarding what to publish?

Kennedy: BuzzFeed obviously is not a legacy news organization like The Atlantic or The Washington Post. It is a decade old, it’s entirely digital, and it made its reputation through viral content such as cat videos. But it has also done a considerable amount of admirable journalism, and the people who lead it seem to want the site to be taken seriously as a source of news. I would have liked to think that BuzzFeed’s standards were substantially the same as The New York Times’, but that turns out not to be the case.

BuzzFeed has asserted that by publishing the documents, “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.” BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith repeated that in a memo to his staff explaining why he had decided to publish. It is an absurd argument; what exactly is it that Americans are supposed to “make up their own minds” about? As Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple put it, “Americans can only ‘make up their own minds’ if they build their own intelligence agencies, with a heavy concentration of operatives in Russia and Eastern Europe.”

Where should news organizations draw the line, particularly in this age of digital media? In a case like this, how should they determine what sort of story to run, if any at all?

Kaufman: The news organizations all noted this information wasn’t verified but they also noted that the intelligence agencies felt confident enough that they shared it with Trump and Obama. That tipped the scales toward publishing it, in my view.

These allegations were vetted to some extent by intelligence agencies and shared with the top leaders of the U.S. That is what was published by news outlets. That is different than some anonymous letter coming in through the mail slot. If the CIA submits a report to the president, that is newsworthy and it is correct to report what is in that report, even if the CIA says it can’t fully confirm the contents. I think the public understands the questions that surround these documents. The media has been transparent about what they know and what they don’t know. 

How do you think BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the dossier will impact journalism and the media, particularly in such a polarized political climate?

Kennedy: I fear that the fallout from BuzzFeed’s misguided decision will be harshly negative toward the press, though I could be wrong. I was pleasantly surprised at Trump’s praise for the vast majority of news organizations that did not publish the documents, although he cynically conflated the CNN and BuzzFeed stories as though they were the same. This is a BuzzFeed problem, not a media problem, and it should be treated as such.

The Trump presidency represents an extraordinary challenge to the role of the press in a democratic society. We do not help ourselves when we abandon our standards in favor of pursuing clicks and indulging in rank speculation. It’s one thing to toss around theories on Twitter—I do it myself. It’s quite another to blast unverified raw intelligence out into the public sphere.

In their classic book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that journalism is “a discipline of verification.” When we move away from that, we are not serving the public and we are only contributing to the sense that we are not to be trusted.

Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore