Politics & Policy

Shame on Buzzfeed

Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith (Reuters photo: Gus Ruelas)
The worst case of journalistic malpractice ever?

When you’re a political writer, journalist, or reporter, you’re a rumor magnet. The amount of information that flies at you can be truly staggering, and much of it is pure garbage. Trust me when I say that almost every prominent politician, no matter how squeaky clean, is the subject of salacious and bizarre scandal-mongering. And if there’s a prominent politician who isn’t the subject of rumors, give it time. The rumors will come.

I say this because I was one of the many people who were told that Trump had been “compromised” by Russian intelligence. This is an extraordinarily weighty allegation. It’s essentially a claim that the then GOP nominee (and now president-elect) isn’t just misguided in his Russia policy but under the actual influence and potential control of our primary geopolitical rival. This would be unprecedented. It would create an instant and grave constitutional and national-security crisis.

So here’s what responsible people say when confronted with claims like that: What’s your evidence? If the answer is “an anonymously written and anonymously sourced series of memos that no one has yet been able to substantiate,” then you either pass on the story or — if you have the time and resources — try to substantiate the claims. If you can’t, then you pass. It’s that simple. Any other action isn’t “transparency.” It’s not “reporting.” It’s malice.

Buzzfeed is malicious. Last night, just before multiple members of its staff publicly wept real tears over President Obama’s farewell address, Buzzfeed published a 35-page “dossier” of unverified, anonymously sourced opposition research against Trump. I won’t dignify the document with a link, but it’s allegedly written by a former British intelligence official at the behest of Trump political opponents, and it paints a picture of Trump as thoroughly compromised by Russian intelligence, in part through claims that the Russians have evidence of personal misconduct by Trump that is embarrassing and humiliating.

The claims rocketed around Twitter last night, and instantly Trump became the butt of jokes (at best) and the subject of hysterical fears (at worst). But no one knows whether any of the “dossier” is true. In fact, the only thing we know is that parts are false. CNN has debunked one of its key claims — that a Trump lawyer met with Russian intelligence officials in Prague — and NBC has reported that U.S. intelligence officials believe the dossier is an example of “disinformation” circulating about Trump. Even Buzzfeed acknowledges that parts are plainly false.

Yet it released the dossier anyway. Its “justification” for the release is a CNN report last night that intelligence officials briefed Trump that there are those who allege that “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” Trump was allegedly presented with these claims in a two-page summary document that referenced the dossier. NBC is now disputing CNN’s report, claiming its sources say that Trump was not briefed about claims that Russia had compromising information on him.

Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith defended the release with this ridiculous statement:

Where to begin? First, it’s not “ferocious reporting” to upload a dossier that was being freely offered to reporters across the nation. This wasn’t meeting a source under a Somalian bridge, moments before he’s assassinated with a silenced pistol. This was nothing more and nothing less than taking a document someone was eager to give you, uploading it into the cloud, and publishing it on your website.

Second, Buzzfeed published a document it was already debunking. Note that he said that Buzzfeed — with all its considerable resources — had been trying to verify its claims. So far, they had failed. Buzzfeed’s staff is chock-full of Democratic operatives who were desperate to defeat Trump. Does anyone think for one moment that they would have withheld even a single damaging syllable if they had been able to prove its truth? Indeed, even these partisans acknowledged (after that investigation) that there is “serious reason to doubt the allegations.”

Third, how, pray tell, are Americans able to “make up their own minds” about the claims? They don’t know the sources. They don’t have the resources to investigate. Individual Americans aren’t free-standing intelligence agencies, ready and able to investigate alleged Russian operations in Moscow. It’s absurd.

Buzzfeed published a document it was already debunking, acknowledging that there was ‘serious reason to doubt the allegations.’

Buzzfeed has long battled accusations that it’s little more than a partisan click-farm, and its news team has done good work in the past, but this “report” should annihilate its credibility. It was already teetering after running a ridiculous hit piece on HGTV stars Chip and Johanna Gaines, disclosing that their pastor was, gasp, an actual Christian who believes what the Bible says about sexual morality. This story, however, is several orders of magnitude worse. It’s perhaps the worst example of journalistic malpractice I’ve ever seen.

Moreover, Buzzfeed’s action has completely swamped the reporting on the questions that are newsworthy. Did intelligence officials brief Trump on claims that Russia possesses compromising information about him? Are intelligence officials taking these claims seriously? Did the FBI seek and ultimately obtain a FISA warrant to investigate ties between Trump officials and the Russian government? Are intelligence officials improperly leaking details of classified reports to the press? What is the depth of the animosity between Trump and his intelligence agencies? How could that affect national security?

#related#Given the now Trump-acknowledged reality that Russia hacked DNC computers, the question of Russian involvement in our election is and should be front and center in our national debate. Buzzfeed didn’t contribute to the debate, it took advantage of it. It may have secured clicks and fame, but it undermined journalism, it undermined faith in our democratically elected president-elect, it humiliated and potentially defamed real people, and it did so without pointing to a single, verified fact.

Yesterday, Buzzfeed wasn’t a news organization. It was a rumor mill. Shame on Buzzfeed.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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