This week, the gossip website The Dirty posted screenshots of explicit chats between an anonymous woman and New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner. Even though the legitimacy of the screenshots could not be confirmed, other news outlets ran the information, and within hours Buzzfeed had identified and named the woman in the chats. Brooke talks to McKay Coppins, Buzzfeed's political editor, about reporting, transparency, and veracity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Oh, what news this week. Consider Wednesday:A presidential speech on economic inequality, a royal baby name, a New York City mayoral hopeful’s digital peccadilloes. When faced with so many great stories, it's hard for us news professionals to set priorities. Here's how Fox did it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA:We locked in tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans, and we asked those at the top to pay a little bit more.
FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT:All right, we’re gonna take a quick break. But if you would like to hear more from the President, including the complete coverage of his speech on the economy, check out the Fox Business Network. We’re expecting to know the name of the royal baby in just moments, plus Anthony Weiner may be getting more exposure than ever, but the bigger focus may become his wife Huma -
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It’s awkward doing this show sometimes, not least when we choose to talk about something because it is too much talked about or weirdly reported, or both, like Anthony Weiner, now running for New York City mayor.
ANTHONY WEINER:- if they’re willing to still continue to give me a second chance, and I hope they realize that…
[SOUNDTRACK/UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The gossip website, The Dirty, tipped by one of Weiner’s digital flings, reported that he had had more virtual affairs after he quit the US Congress in 2011. The Dirty carries the disclaimer, “Postings may contain erroneous or inaccurate information.” Nonetheless, BuzzFeed, a site that strives to offer real news, alongside its cute cat slideshows, ran with the story. And then it one-upped The Dirty by revealing the name and picture of the alleged tipster. McKay Coppins is BuzzFeed’s political editor. McKay, welcome back to the show.
McKAY COPPINS:Good to be on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So, BuzzFeed learned that The Dirty had this story. This is a fight that has a preset disclaimer on everything [LAUGHS] it posts!
McKAY COPPINS:You know, we did everything we could to confirm that the transcripts were real. We also, of course, went to the campaign and asked for comment right away. Several hours went by, and we told them at the campaign that we were going to run a story, saying, look, this gossip website is making these claims, you haven't responded, we’re going to print that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You don’t see anything [LAUGHS] wrong with that, McKay?
McKAY COPPINS:Well, there's a certain media philosophy, especially among old guard media, that we are the gatekeepers, that it is our job to keep untrue information out of the public eye, and the way we do that is by pretending it doesn't exist, until we can confirm it. This gossip site had this story up for several hours before we reported it. According to the site, it had already had 100,000 clicks on the story. It's not as though this information was not seen by our readers, already.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You're saying it's your job to sort out truth from falsehood, but you’re not doing anything like that in this particular story.
McKAY COPPINS:Actually, if you looked at our story, we did a lot to sort out truth from fiction. We said they were unverified transcripts. We also went to the source, thedirty.com and talked about this website’s uneven track record [LAUGHS] of good taste and journalistic ethics. And it also happens to have leaked similar information about another candidate that turned out to be true. And so, we saw it as our role to come in and say, look, this is what we know about The Dirty, this is what we know about this information, we’re gonna stay on the story and let you know as it progresses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Ultimately, you did manage to identify the woman that Weiner was communicating with. You want to explain how you did that?
McKAY COPPINS:[LAUGHS] We got a tip about who the woman was from a source, and we got our very Web-savvy newsroom to look into it. And they found photos on this woman's various social media accounts that matched the not very well blurred photos on The Dirty, We got a bunch of other information from her social media accounts that were public, her making comments about Anthony Weiner in the past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Why is her name newsworthy?
McKAY COPPINS:In this story, there are two main characters. This woman did decide to leak sex chats to a website called The Dirty. It was only a matter of minutes or [LAUGHS] hours before some other 23-year-old kid could piece this information together. We have a source who is close to this woman who told us that she had, in fact, been carrying on an online relationship with Anthony Weiner. And you'll notice, of course, that other news outlets, including the New York Times, have also reported her name.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mm-hmm. When the New York Times first reported the story, it was also citing the source as The Dirty. [LAUGHS] So I guess –
I guess there's no real difference there. And it’s also telling that when the New York Times began to run with the story, they quoted your editor-in-chief, Ben Smith. Does BuzzFeed serve as a sort of platform between The Dirty and the Olympian heights of the New York Times?
McKAY COPPINS:[LAUGHS] So you're saying we’re middlebrow? [LAUGHS] I think the way that we look at the current media ecosystem is that everyone is competing with everyone, from the New York Times on down to some random guy with a Tumblr account who happens to have a scoop passed on to him. So I guess though that we see our role as going in and engaging with the rumors and sorting out what's accurate and what's not, and doing it in a transparent way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I understand BuzzFeed’s business model, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It uses news and listicles and visuals all as click bait, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to get viewers to your site. I just think that you’re being – a little disingenuous to say that if you don't pass along an unvetted story that may not be true, it’s the same as pretending it doesn't exist.
McKAY COPPINS:To say that this was about business model or chasing clicks is not quite accurate. I mean, we got plenty of views on this story or this series of stories that we did [LAUGHS] but, I mean, it was nowhere near the, you know, 15 cat pictures that will restore your faith in humanity posts that we do.
I mean, we don’t do these things because we think it’s going to be great for our business model or bring us a bunch of views. We do it because we genuinely believe that this is the way journalism has to be done in the 21st century.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:McKay, thank you very much.
McKAY COPPINS:Thanks for having me on, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:McKay Coppins is BuzzFeed’s political editor.