BuzzFeed vindicated over Steele dossier - Columbia Journalism Review

By Jon Allsop, CJR

December 20, 2018

In January 2017, BuzzFeed split the journalism world in two when it published an unverified dossier alleging intimate ties between Donald Trump and the Kremlin (in one case, graphically so). The publication of the dossier in its entirety, commissioned by Trump’s political opponents, written by a former British spook, then circulated at the highest levels of government during the dying days of the Obama administration, immediately raised suspicions. Although BuzzFeed prominently caveated its release of the document, many media commentators condemned its decision as reckless, and other big outlets declined to follow suit.

Yesterday, nearly two years after the fact, BuzzFeed scored an important victory. After Trump took office, the dossier faded in the rearview mirror, with some of its key claims still unresolved. It was overtaken by a breathless Washington news cycle, then by newer, more specific reporting on Trump and Russia, especially following the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. For BuzzFeed, the dossier has cast a longer shadow. Several people named in it sued for defamation (Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was among them but dropped his suit in April this year as his own legal problems intensified). On Wednesday, however, a federal judge in Florida dismissed the claim of Aleksej Gubarev, a Cypriot businessman, on First Amendment grounds, finding that publication was privileged because the dossier was involved in government proceedings, and that BuzzFeed’s report was “fair and true” because it reproduced the dossier without expressing an opinion on it. (While this win bolsters BuzzFeed’s legal standing, it’s not quite out of the woods: Gubarev plans to appeal and there’s still one lawsuit pending in New York.)

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In a statement, Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, quickly claimed the judge’s ruling as vindication: “As we have said from the start, a document that had been circulating at the highest levels of government, under active investigation by the FBI, and briefed to two successive presidents [Obama and Trump], is clearly the subject of ‘official action.’ Moreover, its publication has contributed to the American people’s understanding of what is happening in their country and their government.” On Twitter, journalists, from BuzzFeed as well as from rival organizations, rowed in behind. “It was the right decision to publish and took courage,” wrote ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger. “I’m sorry my colleagues attacked them.”

Many opinions from the time have aged poorly (Chuck Todd telling Smith he’d published “fake news,” for example, was not his finest hour). Other arguments, however, were more reasonable. While it’s easy to caricature in hindsight, the media’s hypersensitivity around facts was an understandable initial response to Trump’s victory, which served as a jarring reminder of threadbare public trust. And not publishing unverified information—particularly when it’s been commissioned by political operatives—remains a gold standard in many quarters. If BuzzFeed or any other outlet were to publish a similarly explosive document tomorrow, it’s naive to think yesterday’s ruling would staunch controversy.

Winning a court case on First Amendment grounds is not the same thing as winning an ethical argument. Nonetheless, on this occasion, BuzzFeed’s legal victory does show why it was right and the naysayers were wrong. (At the time, I was one of those naysayers. I subsequently landed at BuzzFeed, on a three-month internship, before starting at CJR.) As Smith points out, the judge’s ruling affirms the principle that the public has a right to know what its government is getting up to. The existence of the dossier had already been reported. By putting the whole thing online, BuzzFeed moved the story forward.

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Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today. Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.