Whatever you think of BuzzFeed's decision to publish a dossier full of unproven claims about President Trump and Russia, you have to credit Editor in Chief Ben Smith for this: He has been very willing to talk and answer questions about his controversial call.
In the latest example, Smith appeared Wednesday night on Tucker Carlson's show on Fox News Channel, where the two men debated the move for about 11 minutes. The entire interview is worth watching, but two moments stand out.
SMITH: I do think we're living in this world where there's tons of unverified information, and we have to figure out ways to help our audience navigate and reckon with that, rather than just to ignore it.
CARLSON: But, but, but, I mean, just in point of fact — I don't think I'll ever convince you — you didn't actually help them navigate it. You just printed it and said, “It may or may not be true. Here it is.”
Carlson is right. I made a similar point earlier this week, after Smith wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. Readers have no way to determine whether salacious allegations contained in the dossier are true, and because BuzzFeed (like many other news outlets) was unable to confirm or debunk them, the site didn't really help its audience “navigate” to the truth.
A we-report-you-decide approach to journalism works when readers have to make a judgment call. News outlets report the arguments for and against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, for instance, and people decide whether they think it is a good idea. But there is nothing to decide about the specific, factual claims made in the dossier published by BuzzFeed. They are objectively true or false, but no one has been able to determine which.
The second standout moment was when Carlson suggested that BuzzFeed was motivated by liberal bias when it decided to make the dossier public:
CARLSON: I think you make some smart points. I'm for openness. I'm for transparency. But by setting yourself up as a champion of press freedom, you're being slightly disingenuous because there is a political component here.
Carlson then made the case that BuzzFeed often practices activism, not journalism, using examples unrelated to Trump. But the premise was that BuzzFeed's call on the dossier was more about a desire to damage Trump than to be open with its readers.
It is hard to imagine that Smith shed a tear for the president's reputation, but it is also unfair to suggest that BuzzFeed just wanted to do anything it could to hurt Trump. BuzzFeed could have published the dossier before Election Day but chose not to. The site released the documents on Jan. 10, only after CNN reported that top intelligence officials had briefed Trump and then-President Barack Obama on their contents.
That wasn't enough restraint for Carlson — or the many other journalists who have criticized BuzzFeed's decision. But it was, at least, a measure of restraint that counters the idea that harming Trump was the primary objective.