Should BuzzFeed Have Published the Trump Dossier?

No easy answers.

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the contents of the dossier whose existence was reported on last night by CNN and in October by Mother Jones has resulted in a philosophical rift among the press over whether that was the right move.

BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith himself wrote that the dossier contained “explosive and unverified allegations” in a note that explained why the publication posted the dossier. But as he explained further, that fact was overridden by BuzzFeed’s tendency toward “being transparent in our journalism,” of “shar[ing] what we have with our readers” and “err[ing] on the side of publishing.” He also referred to the explanation offered yesterday by BuzzFeed’s Ken Bensinger, Miriam Elder, Mark Schoofs, who in introducing the dossier wrote, “Now BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document 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.”

The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan was not convinced. She compared Smith’s approach with the “many other news organizations [whose] rule is caution: ‘When in doubt, leave it out.'” Her disapproval with Smith’s decision is based both on traditional norms and future implications for a decision that looks like the opening of a Pandora’s box for shady docs:

What I fault him for was plunging down a slippery ethical slope from which there is no return.

In an era when trust in the media is already in the gutter, this does absolutely nothing to help. But even that isn’t the core point, which is far simpler:

It’s never been acceptable to publish rumor and innuendo. And none of the circumstances surrounding this episode — not CNN’s story, not Trump’s dubious history with Russia, not the fact that the intelligence community made a report on it — should change that ethical rule.

ProPublica president Richard Tofel supported the decision in a string of tweets.

Tofel echoed Smith’s desire to have the public decide for itself while also stating that the fact that CNN reported on the existence of the documents justified the publishing of those documents as they formed part of the conversation.

CNN, however, disagreed, issuing a statement after the Trump news conference claiming there was a large degree of difference between its “reporting about the operations of our government” and BuzzFeed’s publishing “unsubstantiated memos,” further claiming that the Trump team is “using Buzzfeed’s decision to deflect from CNN’s reporting,” a way to fault CNN for something they did not do by lumping it in with what BuzzFeed did.

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. The Trump team knows this. They are using Buzzfeed’s decision to deflect from CNN’s reporting, which has been matched by the other major news organizations. We are fully confident in our reporting. It represents the core of what the First Amendment protects, informing the people of the inner workings of their government; in this case, briefing materials prepared for President Obama and President-elect Trump last week. 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.

Albert Burneko, writing in Deadspin, disagrees with the ethical premise against publishing the dossier, calling it an “essential act of reporting,” a way of providing the public with the same access afforded to the elite.

Here is a document that “elected officials, intelligence agents, and journalists” have been circulating among themselves in secret “for weeks” is not merely a permissible news story. It needs no radical extremist reporting catechism to smile upon it. Publishing that document, if you have gotten your hands on it, is the most basic and essential act of reporting. The mandate to publish that document is not a matter of journalistic ethics, but the entire reason to have a free press. If the reason not to publish it is fealty to some code of ethics, then that code of ethics serves only to uphold reporters as a privileged class of information brokers. Of what value is that to the public?

Meanwhile, over at The Outline, Leah Finnegan provides a comprehensive look at the it’s-complicatedness of the question and its attendant issues.

Smith ended his note with an allusion to the times, writing, “publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.” This is a 21st century issue, one precipitated by the existence of Wikileaks, an organization itself at the center of a number of debates about its true motivations and whether it is or isn’t a media organization. Implicit in one’s opinion of BuzzFeed’s decision is a question about whether the journalistic values that held in the 20th century still apply in our current one, with all its competing avenues for distributing information.