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BuzzFeed’s stumble is highest-profile misstep at a time when press is under greatest scrutiny

President Trump said he was grateful to Robert S. Mueller III for a statement disputing a report that Trump directed his former lawyer to lie to Congress. (Video: Reuters)

BuzzFeed News’s apparently mistaken story about Michael Cohen and President Trump is the highest-profile misstep yet for a news organization during a period of heightened and intense scrutiny of the press, as the special counsel’s office issued a thorough rebuke of the website’s story published Thursday.

Reporters at the Guardian, CNN, McClatchy News and other outlets have published disputed, suspect or uncorroborated stories about Trump and the investigation swirling around him since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III began his probe 21 months ago. Each instance has elicited cries of “fake news” from the president and his supporters, stoking the claim that the mainstream media is biased and irresponsible.

But these disputed stories have tended to be about distinct events or actions; they were effectively clues rather than conclusions about Trump’s potential criminality.

BuzzFeed’s story on Thursday, written by Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier, was of a different nature and magnitude: It reported that prosecutors had detailed evidence that Trump had directed Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump’s proposed office tower project in Moscow in 2016 — a direct accusation of presidential criminality. Democrats argued that would be an impeachable offense, if proved.

The big claim led to a big fall on Friday. In an extraordinary statement, Mueller’s office cast doubt on BuzzFeed’s report.

“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate,” the statement said, challenging the central thrust of BuzzFeed’s explosive story — that Mueller’s team had detailed evidence of felonious acts by the president.

The fact that the normally buttoned-up special counsel’s office felt compelled to issue a statement suggests that the story’s conclusions were too baldly stated and too consequential to stay unchallenged. In effect, Mueller’s office seemed to be saying that BuzzFeed went too far and got some things wrong, though it did not say how or what.

In fact, what it didn’t say was important, too. It didn’t say Mueller had no evidence that Trump had sought to influence Cohen — just that BuzzFeed’s description of such statements was inaccurate. Nor did it spell out which reported statements were inaccurate and in what way. Further, it offered no details about how BuzzFeed had mischaracterized any evidence that Mueller has collected.

This gave the online news organization a small bit of daylight and some hope of vindication. In response to Mueller’s office, Editor Ben Smith issued a statement saying BuzzFeed stood by its story. He urged Mueller “to make clear what he’s disputing.”

The Washington Post’s reporting on Friday indicated that “the special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.”

BuzzFeed has been in the uncomfortable position of being alone on its Cohen story. No other news organization has confirmed or duplicated the story through its own reporting since BuzzFeed published it — typically a bad sign for the veracity of any reported allegation because scoops are often matched within hours when a major story breaks.

Under Smith’s tenure, BuzzFeed News has split from the main BuzzFeed site and become a source of serious investigative journalism and political reporting. Its series on assassinations of people opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year.

Mueller’s spokesman, Peter Carr, has been a font of “no comments” to reporters since the special counsel’s office began looking in May 2017 into Russian involvement in the 2016 election. He has remained silent amid tens of thousands of stories about Mueller’s investigation, even as some of these press reports appeared to go off track.

No news outlet, for example, has been able to corroborate the Guardian’s story in late November about a secret meeting between Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Julian Assange, who heads WikiLeaks, the online organization that leaked thousands of emails apparently stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee. Manafort and WikiLeaks disputed the story, which implied a connection between the Trump campaign and the leaks. The Guardian has stood by the story.

Last month, McClatchy reported that unidentified intelligence agencies had picked up cellphone signals indicating Cohen had traveled to Prague at the height of the presidential campaign in 2016, lending credence to claims in the disputed “Steele dossier” that Cohen had met secretly there with Russian officials to coordinate with Trump’s campaign. Cohen has denied the story, which also hasn’t been confirmed by another news organization.

CNN has published at least two disputed stories on the Russia probe.

The first, in June 2017, reported that Congress was investigating a Russian investment fund with ties to Trump transition officials. CNN retracted the article, which was based on a single anonymous source, but never said it was inaccurate; it also forced three journalists responsible for its publication to resign.

A second CNN article in July reported that Cohen intended to tell Mueller that Trump had approved a fateful meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 between Russian operatives and his top campaign officials, Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Although one of the story’s key sources — Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis — recanted his support for the claim after publication, CNN has also stood by this story, which was co-written by Carl Bernstein, one of The Post’s legendary Watergate reporters.

How a reporting mistake nearly derailed the Watergate investigation — and how journalists recovered

BuzzFeed has also faced a buzz saw of criticism from Trump supporters for publishing the dossier, a collection of unconfirmed reports alleging that Russian officials held compromising information about Trump that was compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. Trump has repeatedly denounced it as “bogus” and “a pile of garbage.”

Ironically, Trump can now rely on his nemesis, Mueller, to advance his critique of BuzzFeed and the press.

Speaking to reporters Saturday, Trump called the BuzzFeed story “phony” and said the media has lost its credibility.

“I think that the Buzzfeed piece was a disgrace to our country. It was a disgrace to journalism, and I think also that the coverage by the mainstream media was disgraceful, and I think it’s going to take a long time for the mainstream media to recover its credibility,” he said.

Trump, who has called Robert Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt,” said he appreciated the special counsel’s statement: “I appreciate the special counsel coming out with a statement last night. I think it was very appropriate that they did so; I very much appreciate that.”