From the Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt:
The Worst Excuse for BuzzFeed: ‘Eh, Trump Had It Coming to Him’
A quick Google search can confirm a few of the pieces of that implausible dossier on Donald Trump. For example, on page 23, the document states:
Senior Russian MFA official reported that as a prophylactic measure, a leading Russian diplomat, Mikhail KULAGIN, had been withdrawn from Washington at short notice because Moscow feared his heavy involvement in the US presidential election operation, including the so-called veterans’ pensions ruse (reported previously), would be exposed in the media there. His replacement, Andrei BONDAREV however was clean in this regard.
Mikhail Kulagin is referred to as a press attaché in the Russian embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania, in publicly available reports in October 2005. Over on the publicly available staff list of the Russian embassy in Washington, we can find Kulagin is not listed, and Bondarev is:
ANDREY BORISOVICH BONDAREV; MRS. DARIA VLADIMIROVNA BONDAREVA
COUNSELOR (HEAD OF ECONOMIC SECTION)
This is basic stuff, found after a couple minutes of Googling. So if BuzzFeed wanted to, they could have at least told readers which details they could verify and which ones they couldn’t. Kulagin indeed left his posting at the Russian embassy this year, but for what it’s worth, the Russian foreign ministry says it was part of a planned rotation. (Not like they would admit, “yes, he was a spy involved in meddling the Russian elections,” but it always good to make the call and get the official denial in what you publish.)
Instead, the web publication just told us, “BuzzFeed News reporters in the US and Europe have been investigating various alleged facts in the dossier but have not verified or falsified them.” Thanks, guys, that’s a huge help.
In yesterday’s Jolt, we mentioned the allegation that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen met with Russian officials in Prague. We don’t know if BuzzFeed asked Cohen for a comment or to confirm or deny the trip before publishing the dossier. We now know the dossier had been floating around for months. What was the rush?
Jack Shafer offers some implausible defenses for BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the implausible dossier on Donald Trump:
So far, the U.S. government appears to have been overly prudent about leaking or sharing the sensitive Trump information it holds. Like BuzzFeed’s Smith, I believe the public has an interest in knowing what the much-disparaged elites have been gossiping about for months now. Information like this can’t be bottled up forever, especially in the Web era. You can say it’s “wrong” to publish raw scuttlebutt like this, and I can agree with you. You can see hypocrisy in liberals whinging about the rise of fake news, only to embrace Goldengate, and I can agree with you. But to reprise an earlier point, conventional journalists no longer have the capacity to gate-keep in a perfect way. Complaining about it is pointless.
No, it’s not. Complaining about it is how we demonstrate our expectations of the field of journalism. If publishing unverified information is widely criticized and mocked, publications will do it less frequently. You can find a lot of shocking but never-quite-verified reports from Alex Jones, Debka, Dan Rather, various bloggers with shaky history, etcetera. Most journalists don’t want to be one of those.
And even if the dossier turns out to be pure bunk, there is a good bit of karma blasting back at Trump for inciting the Russians to hack and leak on Hillary, not to mention all the birther stuff. How does it feel to be the aggrieved party, Donald?
Is this what the role of the news media is going to become now? Trump makes unfounded accusations, so we’re free to make unfounded accusations now, too? The decisions you make don’t tell the world about the standards of other people; the decisions you make tell the world about your standards. The gleeful tone of Shafer’s paragraph suggests that publishing false reports is okay if the public figure “has it coming.”
At first I thought the latest journalism scandals like this and Rolling Stone reflected young, improperly trained reporters, like the infamous Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. Then I checked on the ages of some of the more infamous perpetrators of our age. Nope, they’re in their forties.
When I decided I wanted to go into journalism, it was the era where the major news institutions were under fire for going tabloid and doing a bad job: the O.J. Simpson trial, the “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher, the obsessive Olympics coverage of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, the sordid, bloody tale of Lorena Bobbitt and John Wayne Bobbitt. Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song about two of the four, to the Crash Test Dummies’s 1993 hit “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”, and called it “Headline News.”It’s among the few times Weird Al slips a little social critique in his usual silliness: (“They got paid for their sound-bites . . . and sold their TV-movie rights.”) It wasn’t that long after a guest hit Geraldo Rivera in the nose with a chair, and the world cheered.
When people would recoil when I mentioned my career plans, I said, “That’s why I want to go into it – to make it better than this.”
I’m not sure today’s journalism is much better. It’s way more diversified, thanks to the Internet, but it’s not necessarily better.