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Unverified Dossier on Trump and Russia Divides Journalists

CNN accused BuzzFeed of irresponsibly publishing 'unsubstantiated rumors.'
Image: BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith is seen at the University of Southern California's Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy Inaugural Symposium in Los Angeles, California on Sept. 24, 2012.
BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith is seen at the University of Southern California's Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy Inaugural Symposium in Los Angeles, California on Sept. 24, 2012.Gus Ruelas / Reuters

Unverified reports that Russian operatives claimed to have compromising information on President-elect Donald Trump pitted newsroom vs. newsroom Wednesday as journalists and media critics quarreled over what's fair to publish or to withhold from the public.

CNN reported Tuesday — under a byline including the name of legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein — that, during intelligence briefings last week, a summary of documents was "presented" to Trump and President Barack Obama disclosing allegations that Russian operatives claimed to have damaging information about Trump.

CNN didn't disclose what was in the documents, saying the allegations hadn't been verified, and nearly all other major news organizations did the same. NBC News reported Tuesday that briefing materials prepared for President-elect Donald Trump included information that initially circulated among Trump opponents and was passed to U.S. intelligence agencies, but it didn't discuss their contents.

The main exception was BuzzFeed, which published what it said was the full 35-page dossier of allegations, even as it acknowledged that it was unverified and contained some clear errors. The online journal Slate soon followed.

On Wednesday, NBC News cited a senior intelligence official in reporting that while the summary of the unverified reports was prepared as background material for the briefing, it was not discussed during the meeting.

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For his part, Trump thanked news organizations that hadn't published the allegations at his first news conference since he was elected. He singled out CNN for wallowing in what he denounced as "fake news," and he called BuzzFeed "a failing pathetic pile of garbage."

In a memo to his staff, BuzzFeed's editor, Ben Smith, said Tuesday night that he approved the decision to publish the 35-page dossier to be "transparent" with the site's readers, who he said should be allowed to "make up their own minds" about the allegations.

In an interview Wednesday on MSNBC's "MTP Daily," Smith said the days were long gone when journalists could tell their readers and viewers "trust us, we're keeping things from you, we have lots of secrets we're not telling you, but you should trust us."

Smith said the existence of the dossier had been known for months to much of official Washington and the D.C. press corps, and "when you have an object that is in play, that is having consequences for the way that our elected leaders are acting, you do have to ask the question of why should I suppress that."

Smith noted subsequent reports like NBC News' on Wednesday, describing the underlying allegations as "disputed."

CNN, meanwhile, waded back in on Wednesday, issuing a sharply worded statement both rebutting Trump's accusation that it disseminated "fake news" and distancing itself from BuzzFeed.

"CNN's decision to publish carefully sourced reporting about the operations of our government is vastly different than Buzzfeed's decision to publish unsubstantiated memos," CNN said in the statement.

(BuzzFeed is partly funded by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)

Media analysts and journalists across the industry were similarly divided Wednesday.

In a series of tweets Tuesday, David Corn, who was among the first to disclose the existence of the dossier in an Oct. 31 article in the liberal journal Mother Jones, noted that he, too, had chosen not to detail the allegations because he hadn't been able to verify them.

"Even Donald Trump deserves journalistic fairness," said Corn, a fierce critic of the president-elect.

Brad Heath, an investigative reporter for USA Today, asked, "How, exactly, are Americans supposed to make up their own minds about allegations presented without verification or evidence?"

And Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple said Smith's rationale was offered to BuzzFeed's "discredit."

The dossier is "unverified — meaning that it requires further investigation," Wemple wrote. "BuzzFeed has started that process and pledges to continue pursuing it. So why post the documents now?"

But Politico media critic Jack Shafer echoed Smith's argument:

"When such a report is flung about by people in power, as this one was, and its allegations are beginning to inform governance, more damage is done to trust in government and confidence in journalism by withholding it from public scrutiny," Shafer wrote.

Richard Tofel, president of the investigative news site ProPublica, likewise said "citizens should have evidence to consider for themselves."

And Columbia Journalism Review, the industry journal published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, published an article saying BuzzFeed was right to publish the papers.

"The media's full-throated condemnation of BuzzFeed is both self-righteous and self-serving," managing editor Vanessa Gezari wrote.

"Does a media that sits indefinitely on a potentially gigantic story inspire greater public trust?" she asked.

Her answer: "Hardly."