This post has been updated.
BuzzFeed’s rationale for publishing an unredacted, full-on version of the Donald Trump-in-Russia dossier keeps improving. When BuzzFeed first dropped this explosive document on Jan. 10, the popular site argued that it was enabling Americans to “make up their own minds” about these exotic claims — a preposterous proposition. In a note to staffers, BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith advanced the argument a bit by saying, “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.”
In a simply outstanding interview on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” this weekend, Smith noted that BuzzFeed published the document after CNN reported that the dossier had bubbled up to the presidential level. “I guess we thought that it was important when you had a blanket claim like he was compromised by the Russian intelligence, to share the details,” said Smith to CNN’s Brian Stelter. “I think that’s important. I think our audience basically at this point expects you. And this is what you do on the Internet with hyperlinks. You do it by showing your source documents that you can.”
At another point in the discussion, Smith said, “I do think when you have a document in that kind of circulation among the country’s elites, at the center of an incredibly heated political battle, the argument for keeping it away from the American people has to be really, really strong.” That argument is strong — it recognizes that there’s another party with equities in the transaction. In this case, it’s Trump; the dossier slimes him through and through, and perhaps without basis in fact.
In the year of Trump, Smith’s argument has an appeal to it. It’s journalistic populism — the notion that the Beltway-Manhattan cocktail set shouldn’t keep information away from the American people. The guy even deployed a populistic verb to sharpen this particular point. “If you want your audience to trust you, you’re not — you don’t just — our job is not to be gatekeepers to decide what to suppress and keep from our audience,” said Smith in his chat with Stelter. Bolding added to highlight said verb.
Pressed by Stelter on the term “suppress,” Smith called it “tendentious.” Whatever the qualifier, Smith’s word choice cast shady disrepute on the most solemn role of a journalistic institution — that of declining to publish untested and scurrilous allegations. Any journalist who has been in the business a while knows what suppression actually is. It’s the denial or obstruction of Freedom of Information Act requests; it’s the systematic PR-ification of corporate America and the insistence of employees at all levels to hide behind these flacks; it’s the use of arbitration to keep employment disputes out of the public light, as highlighted in the past year’s legal fights at Fox News; and stuff like that. Media outlets are occasionally accused of suppression — for example, the New York Times was hammered for just such activity when it delayed the publication of its scoop on the George W. Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance. The Huffington Post killed a story pitch critical of Uber because it had a partnership with the controversial company. News organizations kill stories all the time, sometimes for reasons that are or appear to be suspicious.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the National Enquirer’s parent company — an organization in the president-elect’s corner — allegedly paid a Playboy model to secure a story about an affair of Donald Trump’s and then stifled it. Now that’s suppression.
The dossier story couldn’t possibly present a more dramatic contrast. Here, various media outlets had an array of salacious allegations that they’d love to have published, if only they could have proved them — or even some of them. To claim that sitting on them is an act of suppression is to suggest a mild conspiracy to protect Trump. Pretty sure that doesn’t exist. If there’s any conspiracy here, it’s one orchestrated by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
Update at 1:32 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said, “Pressed by Stelter on the term ‘suppress,’ Smith called it ‘tangential.’ ” Smith actually called it “tendentious.” This post has been updated.