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After the Trump “Dossier” Debacle: An Open Letter to J-Students
The following is a news opinion and analysis
An Open Letter to Journalism Students: A counterpoint to Columbia Journalism Review’s defense of Buzzfeed’s publication of unverified and false political opposition research material.
More surprising than BuzzFeed’s publication of politically-motivated opposition research about Donald Trump’s supposed Russia connections is the defense offered by a one-time bastion of journalism: Columbia Journalism Review (CJR).
To summarize: On Jan. 10, BuzzFeed published unverified, false, salacious opposition research generated by paid political operatives hired during the presidential campaign to collect dirt on Donald Trump. BuzzFeedacknowledged that the allegations in the “dossier” were unverified, and that some of the information was known to be false. (A Trump lawyer named in the documents as having met with “Kremlin officials” in Prague, Czech last August reportedly never visited Prague.)
In her article, CJR Managing Editor Vanessa M. Gezari denunciates The Guardian,The Washington Post, and The New York Times as “self-righteous and self-serving” in their criticism of BuzzFeed for publishing the opposition research. Gezari claims BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith “convincingly defended” his decision in a staff memo, “arguing that the dossier was being read and talked about ‘at the highest levels of American government and media’.” Gezari goes on to call BuzzFeed’s approach “well-established” in investigative journalism: “Release what you can when you have it and see what new leads it generates.”
“Release what you can when you have it and see what new leads it generates.”—Vanessa Gezari, Columbia Journalism Review Managing Editor
To Journalism Students: This is not a well-established investigative journalism technique. Quite the opposite.
Responsible journalists don’t “release what you can” to generate leads without verifying what’s verifiable and seeking comment from those implicated. And when fact errors are discovered in the material, it’s a huge red flag. Setting aside good journalism, this fact pattern could be interpreted (in theory) as “reckless disregard for the truth’: enough for even a public figure to prevail in a libel lawsuit.
The biggest flaw I see in CJR’s reasoning is the idea that once allegations are “discussed” by other media and in government, we have to report on it (without verifying the material or contacting those named) or else we’re complicit in sitting on a “potentially gigantic story.”
Such reasoning exhibits a naïveté that fails to recognize what propaganda groups know quite well: One way to get their smears and narratives in the public domain when traditional news won’t bite is to get them published by websites or quasi-news outlets. The “story” then goes viral, pretty soon “everyone” is discussing it, and the mainstream news says, Well, how can we ignore it?
We must resist being used as a tool in such propaganda campaigns, especially in an environment where they’re rampant.
What questions should have been asked?
I can tell you with reasonable certainty that the reputable media attorneys I’ve closely worked with would not have green-lighted these opposition research documents for publication with the known facts. Here are some of the questions they would have asked:
Q: Is the nature of the information potentially libelous, if it turns out to be untrue?
A: Yes. *Reason for caution.
Q: Who is the generator of the information?
A: Paid political operatives who wanted a candidate defeated. *Reason for caution.
Q: Do you have good reason to believe, and evidence that supports, the information is true?
A: We know some of it is not true. *Reason for caution.
Q: What is the motive of those who provided the documents?
A: Likely political. *Reason for caution.
Q: Can you verify all of the information?
A: No. *Reason for caution.
Q: Can you verify any of it?
A: Much of it we haven’t checked. Some of what’s been checked is false. *Reason for caution.
Q: Did you contact all of the people named or identified for their comment?
A: No. *Reason for caution.
Q: Is there a compelling reason to rush the story to publication prior to making the contacts?
A: No. *Reason for caution.
Any single cautionary note above would have been enough to warrant holding publication until more reporting could be done.
But under CJR’s reasoning, the worst kind of potentially false material about anyone or anything not only can but should be published, as long as the perpetrators have successfully circulated it behind the scenes to enough players in media and government.
Oddly enough, CJR published a story last year quoting a BuzzFeed official decrying “fake news.” “[W]ithout a top-down cultural shift in journalism, garbage stories will continue to enter the mainstream,” wrote CJR, then quoting Craig Silverman, editor of BuzzFeed Canada, “a leading enemy of fake news.” According to Silverman, “News organizations must recognize the value of being smart filters in a world of abundant, dubious, questionable information.” Yet BuzzFeed and CJR now advocate publication of dubious opposition research — as a method to generate leads.
“News organizations must recognize the value of being smart filters in a world of abundant, dubious, questionable information.”–Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed Canada
A good story tip can come from unlikely sources, even partisan opposition research groups. But the suggestion that their material should have been published under these circumstances is misguided.
Incredibly, CJR now writes of BuzzFeed, “If this strategy pays off, the outlet that has morphed from a cat-video factory to a font of serious journalism could end up with some terrific scoops. You can almost hear the rest of the media muttering, ‘Damn, why didn’t we think of that first?’”
I don’t think most journalists are muttering that at all. We’re muttering, “CJR: How could you?”
2008 December: President Obama nominates Hillary Clinton for secretary of state. 2009 Jan. 13: Reports say the clintonemail.com domain was established. Jan. 21: Senate confirms Clinton as secretary of state. March 18: Clinton will later name this as the date she began using a private server for government business. 2012 Sept. 11: Islamic extremists launch […]