If there was any doubt, the uproar this week over BuzzFeed’s
publication of unverified allegations about President-elect Donald J Trump made clear that the gatekeeper role once played by major news media
organisations has vanished in the digital
This poses a deep danger for legitimate, aggressive journalism, especially from the president-elect, who has been consistent in his heavy-handed demonization of any and all media
whenever he dislikes critical but accurate stories about him.
BuzzFeed’s irresponsible decision to publish a seamy and wholly unsubstantiated research dossier about Trump by a former British spy gave him the opportunity to attack not only BuzzFeed but also CNN, which had reported accurately about the document’s existence but, properly, had declined to reveal its unverified contents. By conflating the conduct of the two news organisations as examples of the growing menace of malicious, digitally spread “fake news,” he undermined the vigorous, accurate journalism that is necessary to hold him and his incoming administration accountable.
The dossier published by BuzzFeed was originally intended as “opposition research” against Trump. There’s nothing unusual about this; political campaigns routinely investigate the background of their opponents to identify vulnerabilities. This information is often passed quietly to reporters in hopes that a damaging article will result. What was surprising in this case was that the allegations against Trump, none of them verified, ended up on a highly popular news website.
During the time I was managing editor and then executive editor of The Washington Post, from 1984 until 2008, plenty of allegations flowed into our newsroom about candidates for local and state offices, Congress and the presidency. They involved everything from corruption to conflicts of interest to sex lives. Quite often, we knew they also had been circulated among other news organisations and were the subject of widespread gossip in Washington, as was the case with the Trump dossier.
In many cases, we found after exhaustive reporting that the allegations were false or unverifiable. My rule was that we would publish only what could be verified, even if we suspected it was true or thought someone else might publish it anyway. Most of our competitors followed the same professional and ethical standards, and they still do.
This was also the case with the Trump dossier, which was an open secret among reporters in Washington. Many news organisations tried and failed to verify its contents and declined to publish anything about it. That changed when CNN
accurately reported that a classified report summarising the dossier had been given by intelligence officials to President
Obama, Trump and congressional leaders. Then BuzzFeed posted the entire dossier, even while telling readers that the “allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.”
This led Trump on Wednesday to call BuzzFeed “a failing pile of garbage” and denounce CNN as a “terrible organisation” and “fake news.” This is a dangerous road that Trump is heading down, mashing together, in a sweeping complaint, CNN’s conscientious approach with Buzzfeed’s ill-considered action.
At a time when the president-elect is trying to make major political changes in a deeply divided country, he is encouraging the public not to believe reporting by responsible news organisations that are striving to hold the government accountable. He did the same thing during his campaign, rallying his followers against the “dishonest media” while at the same time feeding news organisations and the public distorted and unproven allegations about his opponents.
Too many members of the incoming administration and Congress have been following Trump’s lead, attacking factual news reporting. How would they and their constituents benefit if no one believes news coverage of what they say and do? After Jan 20, will President
Trump realise that he has a leadership responsibility to change his tone and approach, even when his ego is bruised?
Of course, the responsibility is not only Trump’s. The news media
must separate in the public mind responsible journalism from recklessly inaccurate and purposely false information disguised as news for profit or influence by charlatans. Raging against attacks by Trump and his allies on “the mainstream media” will not suffice. The news media
must double down on fair but aggressive news coverage, including scrutinising the practices of those who don’t have the same standards.