It’s a cliche for editors: Let readers decide for themselves. It is most commonly uttered in reference to public policy debates or investigative revelations, when arguments have been presented and facts are well established.
On Tuesday, BuzzFeed plopped the term into a very different context. In a story with three bylines — Ken Bensinger, Mark Schoofs and Miriam Elder — the news division of the popular website published a dossier of allegations pertaining to Donald Trump and Russia. It describes attempts by Russian officials to cultivate Trump and gather compromising material on him. The existence of the document isn’t a scoop: Mother Jones’s David Corn before the election discussed some of the material, and CNN on Tuesday scooped a story under the plain-language headline, “Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him.”
To its credit, BuzzFeed notes prominently that the “allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.” In fact, that qualification comes in the sub-headline. To its discredit, the BuzzFeed story offers this motive for publishing the allegations: “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 US government.”
Americans can only “make up their own minds” if they build their own intelligence agencies, with a heavy concentration of operatives in Russia and Eastern Europe. CNN pointedly declined to drop the document’s details on the public: “At this point, CNN is not reporting on details of the memos, as it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.”
In an email to colleagues, top BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith put forth this explanation:
As you have probably seen, this evening we published a secret dossier making explosive and unverified allegations about Donald Trump and Russia. I wanted to briefly explain to you how we made the decision to publish it.
We published the dossier, which Ken Bensinger obtained through his characteristically ferocious reporting, so that, as we wrote, “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”
Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing. In this case, the document was in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media. It seems to lie behind a set of vague allegations from the Senate Majority Leader to the director of the FBI and a report that intelligence agencies have delivered to the president and president-elect.
As we noted in our story, there is serious reason to doubt the allegations. We have been chasing specific claims in this document for weeks, and will continue to.
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.
The more detailed discussion put forth by Smith lands closer to the mark. Though the dossier started out as opposition research, funded first by groups connected to Trump’s GOP primary opponents and later by those on the Democratic side, as reported by CNN — and it is the work of a former British intelligence operative. It has evolved into essentially a government document — something that reporters might seek via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A synopsis of the dossier has been presented both to President Obama and to President-elect Trump.
Then again, it is unverified — meaning that it requires further investigation. BuzzFeed has started that process and pledges to continue pursuing it. So why post the documents now?