Few consumers learned of the BuzzFeed story from BuzzFeed itself. Instead, they heard or read about it from virtually every other outlet — many of which used the launching pad of “if true” to engage in hour upon hour and story upon story of speculation about what such a development would mean, with many sentences ending with “impeachment.”
The reporters who wrote the BuzzFeed story had enough history and credibility that their “bombshell” certainly should not have been ignored. But BuzzFeed is neither The Post nor the New York Times, and its report relied on just two unnamed sources. Until other news organizations could verify the story, it deserved a brief mention on cable news at the top of the hour instead of the breathless analysis and speculation that it received. Using the caveat “if true” did not justify the runaway train that careened down the pseudo-journalism track.
Good reporters are essential for good journalism, but they are only one part of the equation. Good editors — plural — and adherence to entrenched journalistic standards are just as crucial. I doubt that BuzzFeed and many other similar online outlets are able to employ the same level of editorial filters as The Post, the Times or other legacy outlets, either print or television. The solid Watergate journalism of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was made great by editors such as Ben Bradlee putting the brakes on the zeal of their young and eager reporters, making sure they had what they thought they had before the presses rolled.
Even after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office issued its extraordinary rebuke of the BuzzFeed allegations, some outlets attempted to defend their endless recycling of the story. MSNBC ran a banner claiming that Mueller had disputed “part” of the story. But in follow-up reporting, The Post made clear that Mueller had done more. Referring to virtually all the explosive claims made by BuzzFeed, The Post reported on Friday that “Mueller’s denial, according to people familiar with the matter, aims to make clear that none of those statements in the story are accurate.” Another Post follow-up described how, prior to BuzzFeed’s publication of the story, the special counsel’s office provided BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold with a partial transcript of Cohen’s plea hearing in an effort to clarify that Cohen had not accused Trump of ordering him to lie. Leopold apparently did not comprehend what Mueller’s office was trying to tell him.
Too often, Trump delights in the missteps of the media, but, just as often, the media accommodates him. The BuzzFeed debacle offers an opportunity for the kind of self-reflection and recalibration that has long been needed in the age of Trump — more dedication to fairness and less haphazard, thinly sourced reporting that seems to hope for the worst.
If the BuzzFeed episode does not provide a watershed moment in curtailing journalistic irresponsibility across the board in all-things-Trump, it is difficult to imagine what would. ABC’s Jonathan Karl recently cautioned, through his own investigation, that the Mueller report is “almost certain to be anticlimactic.” That’s not what many in the media want to consider. But what if he’s right?
Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” The biggest danger to Jefferson’s preference is not Donald Trump. It is the self-destructive habits of modern journalism itself. That it is better to be right than to be first is a concept that, in the Internet age, seems as quaint as Jefferson’s quill pen.
Jefferson could not have conceived of a BuzzFeed and the infinite landscape of constantly updated digital platforms, or the 24-hour cable news cycle. But all who aspire to be part of the Fourth Estate, by whatever platform their product is delivered, should cherish — cherish — the responsibility it entails. That means fairness over bias, caution over immediacy, and trustworthiness over clickbait. It means slowing down and getting it right — something completely at odds with the age in which we live but essential to regaining the public’s trust.