On Tuesday evening, in what appeared to be a well-calibrated hit piece against President-Elect Donald Trump on the day before his pre-inauguration press conference, CNN ran a story about how both Trump and President Obama had been briefed on an unverified intelligence report alleging corrupt ties between Trump and the Russian government. BuzzFeed quickly jumped on that lead to dump the entire report, which apparently had been circulating in journalistic circles for months, but which could not be verified.
There are two major questions here.
1. Is The Report True? This, of course, is the question everybody’s asking. But there’s no way of knowing. BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith said himself that the allegations were “potentially unverifiable.” The allegations look plainly ridiculous on their surface, particularly the over-the-top description of Trump renting a hotel room in which the Obamas had stayed and then hiring Russian prostitutes to engage in a mass “golden shower” party. That sounds like something out of David Brock’s sickest fantasies. And Trump’s people, including Trump himself, have denied all of it. Lawyer Michael Cohen, who supposedly brokered anti-Hillary material with the Russians in Prague, has denied ever having visited Prague. With that said, as LawfareBlog points out:
The President and President-elect do not get briefed on material that the intelligence community does not believe to be at least of some credibility. The individual who generated them is apparently a person whose work intelligence professionals take seriously. And at a personal level, we can attest that we have had a lot of conversations with a lot of different people about the material in this document. While nobody has confirmed any of the allegations, both inside government and in the press, it is clear to us that they are the subject of serious attention.
And nobody has yet answered satisfactorily why Trump seems so adamant about his pro-Russia stance even in the face of aggression.
2. Why Did BuzzFeed Run The Report? A few years ago, I ran an unverified rumor about Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that I had obtained from a high-ranking Senate source. The piece itself noted that the information had not been verified. The rumor turned out not to be true, and I was rightly ripped for reporting the rumor without verifying it. Among those leading the charge: BuzzFeed. I learned a hard lesson, but a good one.
BuzzFeed didn’t, apparently.
Today, BuzzFeed ran an unverified rumor piece of precisely the type they decried when it came to Secretary Hagel. Here was Smith’s full (and weak) explanation:
Pretty much everybody on the left side of the journalistic aisle had seen this unverified report. Julia Ioffe tweeted, “Okay, fellow journalists, raise your hand if you too were approached with this story. (I was.).” None of these journalists were able to verify the details in the report, and so they didn’t run them. BuzzFeed did. That’s not coincidental. Here were just some of the BuzzFeed reporters weeping over Barack Obama’s exit speech on Tuesday night:
BuzzFeed editors are having a hard time right now pic.twitter.com/8F9qIlKO6K— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) January 11, 2017
We’ll have to wait to see whether any of the information in the report is true. But the questions it raises about media credibility are just as serious as any evidence-free questions it raises about Donald Trump.