Donald Trump on Wednesday slammed BuzzFeed for publishing a 35-page document full of unverified claims about a Russian effort to compromise him, and the growing consensus among journalists is that the president-elect had a point.
For many in the media, validating one of Trump's attacks is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable thing to do. The billionaire's complaints about press coverage are so frequent — and typically so unfair — that reporters often feel compelled to defend each other's work, as if protecting the reputation of their entire profession. Many journalists tweeted support for CNN and Jim Acosta on Wednesday, after a news conference scrap that ended with Trump calling Acosta and his network “fake news.”
But there has been no such rallying around BuzzFeed, which Trump called “a failing pile of garbage.” A few journalists have backed the site, including ProPublica President Richard Tofel, but more have openly questioned BuzzFeed's judgment.
“Don't you have a responsibility of not spreading false information?” Chuck Todd asked BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith on MSNBC on Wednesday evening.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote that “it's a bad idea, and always has been, to publish unverified smears.”
Guardian media editor Jane Martinson wrote that “it is wrong for any respected news organisation to publish information it knows may not be true.”
Journalism ethics are at the center of the criticism, but there is another layer to reporters' frustration with one of their own. At a time when the incoming president is firing constantly at the news media, blowing new holes in the industry's already-weakening foundation of trust, BuzzFeed just handed him more ammunition.
“BuzzFeed let Trump cast a shadow of doubt on all reporting,” Poynter Institute Vice President Kelly McBride wrote in the New York Times.
“In an era when trust in the media is already in the gutter, this does absolutely nothing to help,” Sullivan added.
“Do you believe that you have helped the credibility of the media with the public or hurt the credibility of journalism with the public?” Todd asked Smith.
“I think in the long term,” Smith replied, “we all have to reckon with the reality that we've got to engage information that is out there, true and false, do our best to verify it and be as transparent as we can with our readers about what we know, what we don't know and what we doubt. It's an incredibly uncomfortable thing, I think, for everybody.”
At Wednesday's news conference, Trump actually thanked many news outlets for being “so incredibly professional” in handling the unconfirmed details contained in the document published by BuzzFeed. Even he seemed to recognize and appreciate the restraint exercised by most of the press.
But Trump seldom hesitates to cherry-pick one example that fits his overarching narrative. And his narrative is that the media is shamefully biased against him and unworthy of public confidence.