BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith used the New York Times's op-ed page Monday to defend his website's hotly debated decision this month to publish documents containing unproven claims about a Russian effort to compromise President Trump. He began like this:
Since BuzzFeed News published a 35-page dossier of unverified allegations about ties between President Donald J. Trump and Russia, I've heard a chorus of criticism from journalists who say we abdicated our role as gatekeeper, and a chorus of thanks from readers who want to be trusted to judge dubious documents.
Smith's argument in the Times echoed the one he presented on MSNBC the day after BuzzFeed published the dossier: “I guess our impulse, I think, is to show the audience the underlying document and let them make their own decisions.”
The problem Smith continues to overlook is that readers actually have no way to judge the documents, and the notion that people can just decide whether to believe what is in them is inherently flawed.
The dossier is full of allegations that are either true or untrue. We're talking about things Trump did or did not do and events that did or did not happen. Multiple news outlets that spent weeks investigating the claims, compiled by a former British intelligence officer, were unable to confirm or debunk them. That's why the documents went unpublished for so long — and why many outlets still refuse to describe their contents in detail.
The key thing to remember is that an inability to ascertain an objective reality does not mean that there is none. The dossier alleges that Russia tried to gain leverage over Trump by compiling damaging personal and financial information. No one has been able to prove or disprove the charge, but it is either true or it is not.
BuzzFeed readers are not entitled to “make their own decisions” about reality any more than the White House is entitled to “alternative facts.” Unless they have done more reporting — with greater success — than the journalists who probed the dossier, readers who “judge [the] dubious documents” to be true or false are really just clinging to what they hope is true or false, based on their opinions of Trump.