The American public learned this week about a federal investigation into a 35-page dossier with some salacious, but unverified, dirt on Donald Trump. Journalists from several outlets had seen the document prior, but had held off on releasing it. That changed Tuesday, when CNN reported on the dossier and Buzzfeed posted the full text online.
Trump retaliated at his Wednesday news conference when he refused to take a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta. But rather than defend press freedom by demanding an answer to his question, the press corps moved on and questioned Trump on other topics. This fierce competition, observes Putin watchdog Alexey Kovalev, is one of a few similarities to the weakened state of the Russian media.
Whether Buzzfeed’s decision to post the full, unverified dossier was justified is now a further point of contention in the media at a time when journalists are still uncertain about how to effectively cover the new president. In an internal memo, Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote that "publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017." Brooke speaks with Slate’s Will Oremus about the sticky ethics behind Buzzfeed’s decision and what this episode teaches us about newsworthiness.
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BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Regular listeners know that this program is not made for media practitioners but for people who daily confront and consume media in all its forms, not just journalism but advertising, video games and, of course, vanity license plates. That said, this hour is about journalism, and also reality. The first is a desperate suitor, the latter an increasingly elusive and capricious object of desire. Journalism, spurned and frustrated, clearly is going about this all wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: I mean, if journalists are to fulfill their mission to inform and equip citizens to participate in our democracy, they’ll have to overturn decades of tradition. They’ll have to resist the reflex to view the president’s every utterance as news. They’ll have to report on the context before the tweet and to choose which facts to check. They’ll have to use more independent judgment than they have in perhaps a hundred years, or leave the public to be seduced and abandoned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In our research, it was mostly left-leaning political analysts who were publicly pondering this challenge to the press, so it’s their thoughts you’ll hear. This week’s news, of course, was dominated by Donald Trump's final press conference as president-elect, and it was – bizarre. His staffers came to literally cheer and the stage was set with a table stacked with prop files filled with pages Trump said he’d personally signed to ensure no conflicts of interest.
BOB GARFIELD: You could call it unprecedented, except that it's happened before, in Russia. As Alexey Kovalev noted in Medium, this is pretty much how Vladimir Putin choreographs his rare press conferences. He dominates and everything, everyone else is a prop. Kovalev also noted that there is no camaraderie among the Russian press. They are fierce competitors, even as they duck and cover under Putin’s endless follies of lies, which brings us back to this week's press conference.
CNN's Jim Acosta was trying to ask a question shortly after Trump went off on CNN, incorrectly, for its handling of the Russia dossier story.
PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: He’s asking a question, don’t be rude. Don’t be rude.
CNN REPORTER JIM ACOSTA: Mr. President-elect, can you give us a question –
TRUMP: Don’t be rude!
ACOSTA: - since you’re attacking us? Can you give us a question?
TRUMP: Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question.
ACOSTA: Can you give us a question?
TRUMP: I am not going to give you a question.
ACOSTA: Can you state, can you state categorically -
TRUMP: You are fake news.
ACOSTA: Sir –
TRUMP: Go ahead.
ACOSTA: Can you state categorically that nobody —
No, Mr. President-elect, that’s not appropriate.
TRUMP: Go ahead.
BOB GARFIELD: Belittled, then cut off, whereupon the rest of the press corps, in defense of their colleague and of the very First Amendment, heroically stepped forward, as one –
SLAVE: I’m Sparticus.
SLAVE: I’m Spartucus.
SLAVE: I’m Sparticus.
SLAVE: I’m Sparticus.
SLAVE: I’m Sparticus.
SLAVE: I’m Sparticus.
[SEVERAL AT ONCE]
SLAVES: I’m Sparticus.
BOB GARFIELD: - to demand an answer to Acosta's question because denying press freedom to one denies press freedom to all. Oh, wait, no, they didn’t. They just stepped over Acosta's body to get their own questions in: Oh, Mr. President-elect, pick me!
Naturally, no satisfactory answer was forthcoming, and there never will be. So why be played? For the Trump press corps to be any more useful than the Putin press corps, it must place mission above competition and vanity and pointless posturing. Don’t be slaves to a rigged system. Be Spartacus, just for a moment, just once! Be Sparticus.
[SPARTICUS CLIP/BATTLE CRIES]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, what set Trump’s blood boiling and fingers tweeting was a dossier that had been floating around Capitol Hill. For months, there had been rumors of an investigation, by someone, into Trump's ties to and behavior in Russia. It finally emerged in full on BuzzFeed, all 35 salacious unverified pages, the work of a British intelligence sleuth.
PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: I think it's a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public. As far as BuzzFeed, which is a failing pile of garbage, writing it, I think they’re gonna to suffer the consequences. They already are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week in Slate, which also hosted the full dossier, writer Will Oremus examined the sticky ethics of BuzzFeed’s decision and he noted that BuzzFeed did serve up the dossier with more than a pinch of salt.
WILL OREMUS: BuzzFeed presented it as, we know that this might not be true so regard it with skepticism but here, here is the full unedited document and we leave it to Americans to make up their own minds. I find that a little disingenuous [LAUGHS] in a way because if the entire US intelligence apparatus can’t make up their minds as to whether this is true, how is the average American [LAUGHS] supposed to make up their mind? You know, that part, I think, was maybe a little hard to stomach.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s almost unbelievably BS-ey.
In a court of law a jury, their whole job is to make up their minds, but if information is unverified or false, they’re told to disregard it. And here, you’ve basically tainted the public opinion jury pool, as it were.
WILL OREMUS: Yeah, I think you’ve just made the con side of the case for publishing this pretty strongly. To add a word on the pro side, you know, this is a document that is being evaluated and discussed at the highest levels of US government and it’s a document that people are alluding to in public hearings. And so, the question that organizations like BuzzFeed and, and many others were, no doubt, wrestling with is when you have this information, shouldn't we err on the side of disclosing something that’s clearly newsworthy, if not because it's true then at least because it is shaping what's happening in Washington right now?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I loved how you wrote about the trajectory of this story. BuzzFeed presumably published it in part because CNN was reporting on it. CNN was reporting on it because intelligence officials had briefed Trump on it. Intelligence officials briefed Trump on it because senior congressional leaders were passing it around. Senior congressional leaders may have been passing it around in part because Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid alluded to it in a letter blasting FBI Director James Comey for publicizing information harmful to Hillary Clinton but not publicizing the dirt on Trump. Each act, you wrote, lowers the bar for those who followed to act on information they knew might or might not be true.
WILL OREMUS: Yeah, and one of the parallels that came to mind immediately when this happened was Matt Drudge, one of the original political bloggers - published the allegations about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky but the story was not about the allegations, per se, the story was framed as Newsweek is sitting on explosive story about Bill Clinton and an intern. So Drudge justified it by making it a media story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At that time, I was National Public Radio's media correspondent. NPR wasn't going to report on the stained dress of Monica Lewinsky, but they did ask me to report on the coverage of the stained dress –
- a, by now, well known kind of dodge for taking responsibility for actually covering the story. And I wouldn’t do it.
WILL OREMUS: Now that I think about it, isn’t it one of the rhetorical maneuvers that is favored by our president-elect, Donald Trump? He always uses that phrase, “People are saying.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Okay, so in the memo, Smith also said that the decision to publish the full text, quote, “Reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017” and that brings us back to Matt Drudge because one could argue that that was the beginning of the digital age of news transmission.
WILL OREMUS: Yeah, and it’s tempting to think we now live in this era where nothing can be secret, where there's no privacy, where media can serve no gatekeeping role, as the journalism ethics phrase has it, because everything is going to get published and information wants to be free and if we don't publish it somebody else will. I think it’s fascinating, given all of that, that this took so long to come out. I mean, it took weeks or months of a lot of people who - knowing this information for it to finally come out to the public. So it says that the role of media as gatekeeper, it’s not totally dead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what are the stakes, pro and con, for release or not releasing?
WILL OREMUS: There are big stakes here, and one of the potential upsides is, you know, sometimes you have this information, it’s floating around, people are investigating it and they’re getting nowhere, but once it becomes public, all of a sudden, you know, anybody in the world can step in and say, well, I know this guy wasn’t in Prague when the report said he was in Prague and people can step forward with information. So that could be a good outcome.
On the downside, I mean, if this all turns out to be demonstrably untrue, it looks really bad for BuzzFeed and it just reinforces the conservative narrative that the mainstream media is in no place to throw stones because you can't trust them at all, either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even assuming that these allegations against Trump that are in the dossier ultimately will be verified, let's just say that as a point of argument, it’s still distracting us now, during these news cycles, about what it is that he plans to do when he gets into office about Obamacare, about paying for the wall across the southern border, not to mention the point of that press conference, which was all about his conflicts of interest. Isn’t this just serving as a monumental distraction at precisely the wrong time?
WILL OREMUS: [LAUGHS] Isn’t everything?
I mean, it, it is fascinating. I saw someone describe it as, as though the Trump campaign was a denial of service attack on the entire media [LAUGHS] and that denial of service attack being that thing where you enlist, you know, so many computer bots to request information from the same server at once that the whole system crashes. I mean, Trump kind of does that to the media. If you have enough outrageous stuff going on at once, there is no way that the media can possibly keep up with all of it and all of it ends up getting covered less than it would otherwise, [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Slate also released the 35-page dossier.
WILL OREMUS: And it happened while I was writing about BuzzFeed’s [LAUGHING] decision to release the 35-page dossier. So I emailed our Editor-in-Chief Julia Turner, requesting comment, why did you publish this dossier? What she said is, they’re newsworthy documents and that BuzzFeed’s decision to publish was news too. That’s how the bar gets progressively lowered. The fact that people are talking about it becomes news in itself and then the fact that it’s news, you know, justifies other people talking about it, and so on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you disagree with Julia there?
WILL OREMUS: By journalism ethics, BuzzFeed made the wrong decision. I might argue that Slate made the wrong decision too, but there are some cases in which putting information out there can have positive consequences for the world that transcends narrow questions of journalism ethics. I think journalists have a bias toward publication because people in power have a bias against embarrassing stuff being published. And that is part of the role of journalists in the society, is to serve as a counterweight to the forces of secrecy and behind-the-scenes manipulation and, and cover-ups.
So, you know, it’s a really tough question and this is incredibly weaselly but I am not gonna say that I know for sure that it was the right or the wrong call.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think we can all agree, however, that they were really fun to read?
WILL OREMUS: [LAUGHS] Ben Smith will never tell you that that could have played any possible role in publishing this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will, thank you very much.
WILL OREMUS: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will Oremus is a senior writer for Slate.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, a taxonomy of Trump’s tweets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.