- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

“Our media took a long, sobering look at how thoroughly they had disgraced themselves last year and said: ‘I bet we can top that in 2017!’ “

J. Burton, formally of the satire Twitter feed “Hillary PR Team,” gave voice to what millions of Americans were feeling Tuesday night when BuzzFeed News decided to dump a tsunami of unsubstantiated, unverified, made-up opposition research on President-elect Donald Trump.

“Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of U.S. government,” Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, wrote to his staff, explaining why he chose to publish the possibly error-ridden document that so many other news outlets had passed on.

“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing,” Mr. Smith wrote in the letter he released Tuesday on Twitter.

So basically, if any person — no matter how sketchy or what their motivations are — passes along salacious information to BuzzFeed, they’ll publish it, no questions asked.

Or maybe, only if that person is Mr. Trump, which the website has looked to malign this entire election cycle. It’s hard to imagine Mr. Smith would’ve made the same decision — based on such scant evidence and reporting — if that person was President Obama.

Because that’s not journalism, it’s gossip mongering. And it’s awful hard for readers to “make up their own minds” on its content if no counterbalance or quest for truth is given. It doesn’t even look as though BuzzFeed reached out to the president-elect or his team for fair comment — a standard industry practice.

Let’s unpack this report from the beginning.

First, the opposition research BuzzFeed obtained — and it was just that opposition research — had been shopped to many news outlets, which passed on the story after they weren’t able to verify it.

“For those asking, I didn’t publish the full memos from the intelligence operative because I could not confirm the allegations,” David Corn, the Washington bureau chief at Mother Jones, a liberal online publication, wrote.

Mr. Corn saw BuzzFeed’s dossier and looked to verify. He did publish a story in late October that a former Western counterintelligence official was looking into Mr. Trump’s dealings with Russia and was so concerned with what he found, he passed the information to the FBI.

“I accurately characterized the memos- this is important stuff- but didn’t publish details,” Mr. Corn wrote on Twitter. “Even Donald Trump deserves journalistic fairness.”

This is coming from Mother Jones — which would love to take everything BuzzFeed dumped as truth — but morally came to the conclusion it was wrong and irresponsible.

When I worked as a reporter at Bloomberg News, an anonymous source had to be triangulated before we could print the story — meaning I had to get two other sources that said the same thing to authenticate the information. No story ran merely on the knowledge of one person who didn’t want to be attributed.

The Atlantic tried to triangulate this mess on Tuesday night — and came up with a successful nugget — that proved a part of BuzzFeed’s dossier to be untruthful.

One of the allegations in BuzzFeed’s report was that Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, was central to “the ongoing secret liaison relationship between the New York tycoon’s campaign and the Russian leadership,” and that he met secretly with Kremlin officials in Prague in August 2016.

Except, the Atlantic found this claim was untrue.

The news magazine called Mr. Cohen (how novel!), and he told them he and his son were visiting the University of Southern California at the time of the allegation. The Atlantic then followed up with USC to find, indeed, Mr. Cohen was there.

Jeffrey Blehar, a lawyer and elections analyst for the Decision Desk HQ, also saw BuzzFeed’s dossier in October — and admitted he wanted to believe the allegations — but found most of it didn’t add up.

“I was unimpressed with it back then, despite my fervent wish for good anti-Trump material. I remain unimpressed with most of it now,” Mr. Blehar wrote on Twitter. “Some of the allegations in the dossier are solid and worth following up, but are speculative. Most salacious material is 99% likely BS.”

Mr. Blehar said some of the accusations are plausible, but just because they’re plausible, doesn’t make them proven.

As a rule in journalism, if someone says to you “Somebody told me that Trump is a puppet of Putin,” you then can’t quote that person as fact (they’re just a second-hand source) and title an article: “Trump, puppet of Putin: according to a person familiar.”

You must ask that source who that “somebody” is then go to the actual source to see if they have evidence to back up their claim. Anything less is careless.

“Some of the allegations in [the dossier] are wildly improbable though you might not have noticed, e.g. Russia using cyber operators based inside of US,” Mr. Blehar wrote. “That raised my eyebrows back then, and it’s a tiny thing that makes me wonder how loose author/compilers are being w/everything else.”


It seems like any tantalizing information that drives online clicks — and may confirm the newsrooms’ political agenda — is fit to print, at least for BuzzFeed anyway.

CNN took a different path — and looked to highlight the dossier’s contents through the lens that some of its information had been included in an intelligence briefing document to both Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama.

That was how CNN pinned a “news angle” on the tabloid trash — wanting to push the narrative that Mr. Trump has deep Russia ties without coming up with the actual goods (e.g. evidence) to prove it.

The intelligence briefing angle was a sneaky way of pushing an anti-Trump agenda, and gave its anchors and pundits a reason to talk freely about the report and speculate on all of its unknowns, on-air.

What an epic failure of the industry.

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