The Debate in the Press over the Trump Dossier Heats up

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The Debate in the Press over the Trump Dossier Heats up

“You are fake news.”

President-elect Donald Trump’s dismissal of CNN reporter Jim Acosta on Wednesday was heard around the newsmedia world. Acosta, trying to get a question in at Trump’s first press conference in over six months, was repeatedly rebuffed by the incoming president. The reason was simple. On Tuesday, CNN had reported on the contents of an unsubstantiated 35 page dossier that claimed Trump was both financially and morally compromised by the Russian government.

CNN reported on the document after receiving information from “sources in the intelligence agency” that both Trump and outgoing President Obama had been briefed on its contents. Shortly thereafter, at 6:20 p.m. on Tuesday evening, Buzzfeed released the full 35 page memo to the general public. Buzzfeed, in its article on releasing the memo, made sure to describe it as “specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations”—but still defended their decision to release that information.

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.

It’s the unsubstantiated part of the report that’s set off a debate in the left-leaning media—of which Paste is a part—over whether or not releasing the dossier was ethical on the part of Buzzfeed. The consensus, though not overwhelming, is that the long term negative effects of releasing “unverified and potentially unverifiable allegations” like these might far outweigh any plausible benefits of the information.

Shane Ryan, Politics editor at Paste said as much in his story on the dossier Wednesday. Not only have the claims already begun to collapse under scrutiny, Ryan said, but publishing the article could be seen as libelous—if, of course, one could prove bias on the part of Buzzfeed. But more importantly, the story discredits the media at a time when it’s needed most.

It’s a “boy who cried wolf” situation—the next time a real, strong, damning story comes out against Trump, it will be that much easier for him to dismiss it as mere media bias.

Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept agreed. Greenwald wrote that the fervor with which the Democratic media and political establishment has latched onto the intelligence community’s various unsubstantiated claims since Trump’s election are worrying for the future. If this is the resistance, Greenwald wondered, what hope is there for actual and actionable pushback once Trump is sworn in?

The legitimate and effective tactics for opposing Trump are being utterly drowned by these irrational, desperate, ad hoc crusades that have no cogent strategy and make his opponents appear increasingly devoid of reason and gravity. Right now, Trump’s opponents are behaving as media critic Adam Johnson described: as ideological jelly fish, floating around aimlessly and lost, desperately latching on to whatever barge randomly passes by.

Albert Burneko, at The Concourse, took a different view: the dossier should have been released because it had been floating around DC for months. Burneko said that releasing this information to the public is, in his view, the most ethical thing for journalists to do. It’s especially necessary if its contents were known to the press beforehand. That would color their reporting—and wouldn’t it be better for everyone to have the same knowledge?

That Donald Trump is a public figure is no accident: You may recall him seeking, and winning, election to the presidency of the United States. (Perhaps you additionally remember him flouting the disclosure protocols typically associated with campaigning for that job.) This dossier reportedly has been making the rounds among some of the highest-ranking people in the United States government, including Trump and (presumably) his staff; the discussion about it is happening; and it was already happening before anybody at BuzzFeed clicked a button to publish the thing.

Kevin Drum at the misnomered Mother Jones also wrote that he believed the dossier should have been released. Drum said that although there were issues with the information and its release, he—like Burneko—believes that information like the allegations in the dossier should be public knowledge if they’re circulating among DC media elites.

This dossier has apparently been seen or discussed by practically everyone in Washington DC. It has long annoyed me that things like this can circulate endlessly among the plugged-in, where it clearly informs their reporting unbeknownst to all the rest of us. At some point, the rest of us deserve to know what’s going on.

The Guardian and The New York Times have more on the differing opinions about the report in the US media. One thing is clear, though—the news media still doesn’t know how to handle Trump. And everyone, or mostly everyone, is in agreement that releasing unverified information like the dossier will likely compromise reporting in the future.

Vox’s Sean Illing interviewed Poynter Vice President Kelly McBride on the issue Thursday. Poynter is a Florida non-profit media institution; McBride is their “chief media ethicist,” according to Illing. McBride disagreed with the decision to publish the dossier, pointing out that by the time the claims within it are researched, everyone will have made up their mind one way or another. And the release, she said, could be more about Buzzfeed’s gain in the end than it was about informing the public.

Who was BuzzFeed serving here? So CNN decided they had enough information to start telling the public that the president and the president-elect had been briefed about these allegations. And then BuzzFeed decided to publish the dossier. But who are they serving?

One possible answer is that they were serving themselves and their own clicks. They needed to assert their own relevance as opposed to serving the public’s interest.

Whatever Buzzfeed’s motivation in releasing the 35 page memo, the debate will continue. The press will have to do some work to figure out what its role in a Trump presidency is—and how it can most responsibly and ethically serve the public interest. Because there’s at least four years of this ahead of us.

You can reach Eoin Higgins on Facebook and Twitter.

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