BuzzFeed on Tuesday published a 35-page dossier comprising a series of memos, containing intelligence reportedly gathered by a former British intelligence agent as opposition research, about alleged ties between President-elect Donald Trump and Russia. It included claims that Russian authorities have been “cultivating and supporting” Trump for “at least five years” and obtained compromising material on Trump that included video of “perverted” sex acts in a Moscow hotel.
The dossier was not new. BuzzFeed and multiple other news organizations had obtained it well before Tuesday and had been investigating its various claims. Mother Jones wrote about it prior to the election, on Oct. 31, and published a handful of quotes from it. Key figures in Congress had also seen it and even publicly alluded to it, and the Guardian reported on Tuesday that Sen. John McCain had passed it to FBI Director James Comey last month. But no one had published its entire, stunning contents before Tuesday—partly because, as my colleague Joshua Keating put it, “nothing in the memos has been confirmed, and even their provenance is murky.”
BuzzFeed posted the dossier in full, prefacing it with a series of caveats about its veracity and updating it shortly afterward with a vehement denial from Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen, about whom the memo makes several claims. Why did the site opt to publish what so many others had opted not to? And why now, in particular? The answers point to a media industry that still takes its “gatekeeping” functions more seriously than it sometimes gets credit for—even if it doesn’t always perform them.
BuzzFeed’s editor, Ben Smith, explained the decision in a memo to his staff, which he subsequently provided to me and then published on Twitter:
Smith didn’t address why BuzzFeed waited until now to publish the document, and he declined to comment further for this article. But the move came almost immediately after CNN reported Tuesday that top U.S. intelligence officials had shown Trump and President Obama a two-page synopsis of the dossier. The synopsis was presented as an unofficial appendage to the classified security briefings they gave Obama and Trump about Russian interference in the presidential election, CNN reported. Sources also told CNN that the “Gang of Eight” Congressional leaders had been provided a synopsis of the dossier as well.
That top U.S. intelligence officials saw fit to brief Trump and Obama on the dossier would seem to indicate that they took the claims at least somewhat seriously, even though they’ve been unable to verify them and, as BuzzFeed noted, the memos contain some “clear errors.” But CNN’s report suggests that the briefing was partly just about making Trump aware that the dossier existed and was circulating at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
CNN declined to disclose the substance of the claims, writing, “At this point, CNN is not reporting on details of the memos, as it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.” Smith and BuzzFeed saw it differently. It’s possible that if they hadn’t published it Tuesday night, someone else would have.
(Slate, for its part, followed BuzzFeed’s lead and published the dossier later Tuesday as part of Keating’s blog post about it. Asked why Slate ran it, Editor in Chief Julia Turner told me, “The memos BuzzFeed published today are newsworthy documents, and BuzzFeed’s decision to publish was news too. In covering BuzzFeed’s scoop and its implications, we described the allegations in the memos and the questions about their veracity; we thought it served our readers best to republish the documents as well so readers could evaluate the memos for themselves.”)
What we have, with the memo, is a set of explosive charges against the president-elect that no one so far has been able to either verify or fully debunk. What’s remarkable, in a time of social media, blogs, polarized politics, hacks, and leaks, is that the dossier stayed private for so long, even as the Clinton campaign and Democrats saw their private communications splashed across the news. No doubt that was due at least in part to the claims’ sensational nature and the enormous impact they could have, if verified or even just widely believed.
David Corn, the Mother Jones journalist who wrote the magazine’s comparatively circumspect Oct. 31 report on the allegations, tweeted Tuesday night that he did not publish the full memos at the time because he could not verify their allegations. For Corn—and for journalist Julia Ioffe, who tweeted that she was “approached with this story” but turned it down because it was “impossible to verify”—that call came down to ethics and standard operating procedure. Clearly the internet has not turned journalism into a shameless, traffic-thirsty free-for-all.
Yet the dossier did come out eventually, and it’s interesting to reflect on how and why it happened—and whether it was inevitable. It happened via a series of steps by various actors, each of whom relied on the actions of those before them to justify their own decisions. 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 lowered the bar for those who followed to act on information that they knew might or might not be true.
Whether BuzzFeed was right or wrong to publish the memo—and whether it should have presented it with more critical commentary or context—is a question that will be debated in future classes on journalism ethics. For now I’ll just point out that, while Smith has at times proudly positioned BuzzFeed as a member of the “mainstream media,” he was acting here in a different tradition. It was the tradition of internet media and blogs—one pioneered by Matt Drudge, who famously broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal by reporting that Newsweek was sitting on it, and by the now-defunct Gawker. It’s a tradition in which the notion of media as privileged gatekeeper of information is viewed with disdain. It’s one in which sensitive and embarrassing information about public figures is readily disclosed, ostensibly out of respect for the public’s intelligence and right to know. It’s also one in which publishers are rewarded for publishing such bombshells, not with prestigious industry award, but with notoriety, page views, and social media shares.
Smith’s defense of his decision evinces an understanding of this tradition and BuzzFeed’s place in it. “We have always erred on the side of publishing,” he writes. There is virtue in this posture among journalists, insofar as it serves as a societal counterweight to the tendency of people in positions of power to suppress information that could embarrass them. The question is just how far you’re willing to err in that direction, and Smith acknowledges that this was a particularly close call. It rings just a tad disingenuous, however, when BuzzFeed claims to have published the documents simply “so that Americans can make up their own minds” about the allegations. If America’s top intelligence agencies, congressional staffs, and investigative journalists—including BuzzFeed’s own decorated investigative team—couldn’t make up their minds about the allegations, how do they expect the average reader to do so?
That doesn’t necessarily mean BuzzFeed’s decision was wrong. It’s at least theoretically possible for such a disclosure to both violate traditional journalistic norms and benefit society in ways that transcend journalistic ethics altogether. A reader may have little to go on in trying to evaluate the claims’ veracity, but now that they’re public, evidence proving or disproving them may soon surface. But it’s also possible for the publication of incendiary allegations to backfire in ugly ways, not only for the figures involved but for BuzzFeed and the broader media—especially if they turn out not to be true.