The news website posted the unredacted documents on Tuesday, just 10 days before Trump’s inauguration, with a warning that the contents contained errors and were “unverified and potentially unverifiable”.
The decision to put the claims in the public domain forced other media outlets to repeat the allegations or ignore a story that lit up the internet. Some critics rounded on BuzzFeed, calling it irresponsible.
The documents, reportedly compiled by a British former intelligence agent, alleged that the Kremlin was “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for at least five years.
They also alleged that Russian spies exploited the president-elect’s “personal obsessions and sexual perversion” to gather compromising material.
The president-elect denied and denounced the claims in a series of tweets. “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT.”
FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
The memos were compiled by the former intelligence officer on behalf of some of Trump’s Republican opponents in the primaries, and later by Democrats.
Other media outlets including the Guardian obtained and reviewed the documents in recent weeks but declined to publish because there was no way to independently verify them.
The stakes rose on Tuesday when CNN reported that America’s intelligence chiefs gave Trump and Barack Obama a two-page summary of the reports last week. CNN and The Guardian also reported that Senator John McCain delivered a copy to FBI director James Comey last month, but withheld the documents’ most eye-opening details, citing lack of corroboration.
An hour after CNN’s initial story, BuzzFeed went ahead and published the documents. “Now BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government,” the site said in an accompanying note.
The news site noted the documents’ provenance and the fact they contained “some clear errors”, such as misspelling the name of a Russian company.
Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief, followed up a few hours later with a statement that defended publication as an act of journalistic transparency in a hyper-partisan era.
“Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice. But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.” Smith amplified the warning in BuzzFeed’s original story by saying there was “serious reason to doubt the allegations”.
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 11, 2017
Editor’s note: so according to Ben Smith from BuzzFeed, news media can claim Smith is a pedophile with no credible evidence and that it’s up to the public to decide if ti’s true.
Some prominent journalists and media executives excoriated BuzzFeed.
“Even Donald Trump deserves journalistic fairness,” tweeted David Corn, Mother Jones’ Washington bureau chief who reported in October on the existence of – but not the contents of – memos from a “former Western intelligence officer”.
“Rare that a story stinks from every possible angle: the source, the content, the consequence, the messenger, the target,” tweeted Wolfgang Blau, chief digital officer of Conde Nast International and a former Guardian executive.
Rare that a story stinks from every possible angle: the source, the content, the consequence, the messenger, the target.
— Wolfgang Blau (@wblau) January 10, 2017
“Not how journalism works: Here’s a thing that might or might not be true, without supporting evidence; decide for yourself if it’s legit,” tweeted Brad Heath, an investigative reporter for USA Today.
Adam Goldman of the New York Times blamed CNN for opening the can of worms. “Sequence of events: @CNN finds way to talk about report and @buzzfeed uses that as reason to publish. Media critics are gonna be busy,” he tweeted.
On the other hand, Richard Tofel, the president of investigative news organization ProPublica, applauded Buzzfeed, saying “citizens should have evidence to consider for themselves”.
Kudos to @BuzzFeedBen and his team for publishing the dossier. Once CNN story out, citizens should have evidence to consider for themselves
— Richard Tofel (@dicktofel) January 11, 2017
And the blog Lawfare said the allegations, though unproven, needed to be taken seriously because intelligence chiefs appeared to be giving them some credibility. Trump, it noted, had consistently rejected intelligence reports that Russia had hacked the US election.
“All of which is to say to everyone: slow down, and take a deep breath. We shouldn’t assume either that this is simply a ‘fake news’ episode directed at discrediting Trump or that the dam has now broken and the truth is coming out at last. We don’t know what the reality is here, and the better part of valor is not to get ahead of the facts – a matter on which, incidentally, the press deserves a lot of credit.”