Every day seems to bring a new ethical dilemma involving the soon-to-be U.S. president and the way the media handles his Twitter pronouncements, including unsubstantiated allegations and foreign-policy gyrations. But the Trump bombshell that hit Tuesday evening was bigger than normal—if the word normal even has any meaning now.
The first explosion came courtesy of CNN, which reported that four senior intelligence officials—the heads of the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and the Director of National Intelligence—briefed both Donald Trump and President Barack Obama about Russian interference in the election. In that briefing, they summarized some serious allegations made about Trump’s connections to Russia, as well as some eye-opening allegations about his behavior while visiting that country.
According to the documents summarized in this briefing—which CNN’s sources said were authored by a source they believe to be credible (a former agent for the British security agency MI6)—Trump engaged in a variety of sexual acts. The documents allege that these acts were recorded by Russian agents as part of an attempt to blackmail the Republican presidential candidate, and they also allege that Trump cut deals with the Russian government related to U.S. foreign policy. Trump says the report is a complete fabrication.
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The second, somewhat delayed explosion on Tuesday came when BuzzFeed published a collection of memos that formed the basis for the briefing to Trump and Obama, including highlighted sections about the alleged sexual acts, foreign policy deals and other potentially serious behavior.
“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 site wrote in a preamble to its story. And in a memo to staff about the decision, BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith said: “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.”
The BuzzFeed decision immediately polarized the media industry. Senior editors including New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet said they would never publish unverified allegations of that nature, suggesting that BuzzFeed was irresponsible in doing so. (For the record, neither Fortune nor its parent company Time Inc. would have published the documents, according to Fortune editor and Time Inc. chief content officer Alan Murray.)
Others argued that if the allegations were serious enough and credible enough to form the basis of an intelligence briefing for Trump and Obama, then they deserve to be published for all to see. ProPublica president Richard Tofel, for example, made the case on Twitter that publishing the documents was the right thing to do.
Other senior media executives and journalists agreed. But the backlash continued. Washington Post columnist and former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan made the case that “in an era when trust in the media is already in the gutter, this does absolutely nothing to help.”
One argument against BuzzFeed publishing the documents was that the site had just spent months criticizing and documenting the rise of “fake news” and its impact on election coverage. Wasn’t it hypocritical then to publish unverified allegations about the president-elect? The counter-argument made by some was that the New York Times and other outlets thought nothing of reporting on unverified allegations about Hillary Clinton’s emails. Why should this be any different?
A number of senior journalists said that publishing unverified information isn’t what journalism should be about. Stories should only be written after allegations have been either confirmed or proven false, they said. But the reality is that journalists publish what amount to unverified allegations all the time, if they believe the source is credible.
In some cases, the source turns out to have fabricated the information in an attempt to influence how people perceive an issue, as the sources used by New York Times reporter Judith Miller did during the run-up to the Iraq War. And it’s possible the current Russian intelligence allegations fall into that category—especially since the report was originally prepared as opposition research for Democrats and Republican competitors to use against Donald Trump during the campaign.
These are all of Trump’s potential conflicts of interest:
Nevertheless, as ProPublica’s Tofel noted in his tweet-stream, the fact remains that four of the most senior U.S. intelligence officials believed that this information was important enough to include in a briefing for both the current president and the president-elect. The allegations have potentially significant implications, including the suggestion that the Russian government is not only trying to pressure Donald Trump but has succeeded in cutting deals with him.
Even if they are currently unverified, that makes publishing the full documents justifiable on journalistic grounds. Doing so may even make it easier to verify the claims made in them, since it is likely to flush sources of all kinds out of the woodwork. But even if it didn’t, there is a solid argument to be made that BuzzFeed did the right thing in publishing them.
The case against publishing amounts to arguing that journalists are the only ones who are qualified to see such allegations, and that only a handful of media organizations are entitled to make the decision about what is credible and what isn’t. Like it or not, that isn’t how journalism works any more. Information of all kinds emerges in a variety of ways, and then we all get to apply our critical intelligence to it—in public, in real time.
What if Judith Miller and the New York Times had published all of the source documents that they based their Iraq War coverage on? What if everyone had been able to read the alleged evidence of weapons of mass destruction? Wouldn’t it have been easier to refute them, or to at least be aware of what direction they were pushing the administration and why? The outcome might have been the same, but the amount of information the public had about the process would have been exponentially larger. And isn’t that part of what journalism is supposed to do?
Finding the truth is no longer something that journalists get to do inside newsrooms, armed with information that is distributed only to them. It is something everyone gets to do. That may sound like total chaos, and it clearly has negative as well as positive aspects—as Donald Trump himself has shown us time and time again. But it is the reality of media today, so we had better start figuring out how to do it properly.