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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Below, more on BuzzFeed and the dossier:
- “BuzzFeed was right”: Just after BuzzFeed published, Vanessa Gezari, CJR’s then-managing editor, defended its decision and called out the hypocrisy of some of its critics. “The media’s full-throated condemnation of BuzzFeed is both self-righteous and self-serving,” she wrote. “Some critics seem to be saying that unless the information in an intelligence briefing or other leaked document can be independently verified by reporters, it shouldn’t be published. But did reporters independently verify all the allegations against Hillary Clinton and her allies contained in the emails released by WikiLeaks?”
- Graphic allegations: In CJR’s Fall 2017 print issue, Josh Neufeld drew the dossier’s full back story in cartoon form.
- British Steele: Earlier this year, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer profiled Christopher Steele, the British ex-spy who wrote the dossier.
- “Likely false”: Over the weekend, Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff, who was one of the first journalists to report the existence of the dossier, said some of its more sensational claims were likely false. Steele was right “that there was a major Kremlin effort to interfere in our elections, that they were trying to help Trump’s campaign, and that there were multiple contacts between various Russian figures close to the government and various people in the Trump campaign,” Isikoff told conservative podcast host John Ziegler. But when “you actually get into the details of the Steele dossier, the specific allegations, we have not seen the evidence to support them.”
- A legal victory: For BuzzFeed, Zoe Tillman rounds up yesterday’s court verdict. You can read the full ruling here.
Other notable stories:
- At least 18 companies have pulled their ads from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show after he said last week that immigrants make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided.” While Fox angrily accused liberal groups of attempted censorship, it’s unlikely to suffer financially from the boycott: it has simply moved Carlson’s advertisers to other shows. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi writes that the episode—like past controversies involving Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity—will likely fizzle out, while Politico’s Jack Shafer disputes its premise, arguing that advertisers should not be asked to vet ideas. Writing on Galley, CJR’s Mathew Ingram disagreed with him. You can join the debate here.
- For CJR, Elizabeth Hewitt talks with Peter DeMarco, a Boston Globe reporter who painstakingly reconstructed the medical failures leading up to the death of his wife, Laura Levis, in 2016. After exhausting his legal options, “the only out was journalism,” DeMarco tells Hewitt. “As painful and as horrible as it was to investigate my wife’s death, to learn every intricate detail of her death, day after day after day and getting deeper into it each day, I knew I had to do that.”
- Ken LaCorte, a former Fox News executive, has enlisted Michael Oreskes, who resigned from NPR last year after allegations of sexual harassment, and John Moody, who quit Fox in March after a column perceived as racist and anti-gay, to help launch LaCorte News, a part-aggregated news site aiming to restore trust in media. “I couldn’t have afforded either one of these guys had we not been in this crazy type of atmosphere,” LaCorte told Politico’s Jason Schwartz. “In a weird way, I’m actually a beneficiary of companies being hypersensitive.”
- For CJR, Karen K. Ho has the story of Alex George, a TV reporter in Tennessee whose contract and benefits were terminated by Sinclair, the controversial owners of her old station, while she was receiving treatment for cancer.
- GQ’s Zach Baron checks in with California’s Fresno Bee, which has fielded repeated, vicious attacks from its Trump-loyalist local Congressman, Devin Nunes. Baron has a striking quote from Ray Appleton, a conservative talk-radio host whose son, Rory Appleton, is a politics reporter for the Bee. “Devin doesn’t talk to them because every time he talks to them, they change it,” Ray Appleton said. “And they lie through their fucking teeth about what they talked about.”
- Kishorechandra Wangkhem, an Indian TV journalist, has been jailed for a year after criticizing his country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, on Facebook, Agence France-Presse reports.
- More agony for CBS: in a Boston Globe op-ed, the actress Eliza Dushku weighs in on her departure from the network, which she says fired her from the show Bull after she confronted its star, Michael Weatherly, over sexual harassment on set. Dushku declined to comment when The New York Times broke the story last week, but says she felt compelled to rebut the “deceptive” narrative spun by Weatherly and CBS.
- And in Germany, national news weekly Der Spiegel reported that its high-profile staffer, Claas Relotius, falsified facts and quotations “on a grand scale.” Suspicions were raised by Juan Moreno, who worked with Relotius on a recent story at the US–Mexico border, before Relotius confessed last week.
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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.