Tuesday afternoon: CNN publishes the news that US intelligence officials briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump on reports that Russia has "compromising personal and financial information" about the President-elect.
Tuesday night: BuzzFeed publishes the full report (now commonly referred to as the "Trump dossier") with a warning that its contents are not verified.
Wednesday morning: President-elect Trump holds his first press conference since the election, in which he denies the allegations in the dossier. When asked a question by CNN's senior White Hose correspondent Jim Acosta, he responds, "you are fake news," and instead calls on a reporter from far-right news organization Breitbart.
Why is it important?
The dossier prompted a riotous public debate on a set of important political and ethical questions.
About the information itself: What parts are true and verifiable? Specifically, what ties do President-elect Trump and his staff have to Russia? And what information does Russia have on Trump?
About the political ramifications: How might these ties (or the alleged "compromising information") affect his ability to govern? How will his response, particularly to the press, affect the country?
About the ethics of publishing: Should Buzzfeed have published unverified raw intelligence about the President-elect? How will this decision affect the media landscape, and the press' relationship with both the White House and the public?
Should Buzzfeed have published the Trump Dossier?
BuzzFeed's decision to publish the Trump dossier was not only irresponsible and self-serving, it advanced Trump's message about "crooked" and unreliable media. It was both unethical and counterproductive.
There is a meaningful difference between CNN and BuzzFeed's actions. As Vox's Sean Illing writes, "it may be anonymously sourced, but we know for a fact that America’s intelligence agencies briefed Trump and President Obama about Russia’s possession of potentially damaging information. That alone is indicative of the seriousness of the claims." And that is what CNN reported.
BuzzFeed, on the other hand, dumped the contents of a completely unverified report onto their own site. First, the decision was entirely self-interested—as soon-to-be White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, a "pathetic attempt to get clicks." It worked: Google Analytics shows interest in BuzzFeed spiked immediately after the report was published.
Second, it was irresponsible journalism, if you can call it journalism at all. To quote The Atlantic's David Graham, "the reporter’s job is not to simply dump as much information as possible into the public domain... It is to gather information, sift through it, and determine what is true and what is not." By their own admission, BuzzFeed did not do that ("The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.") If you supported President Obama, how would you feel if BuzzFeed published completely unsubstantiated claims against him?
Third and finally, BuzzFeed's actions fed a Trump narrative about media corruption and dishonesty. By publishing completely unverified information, BuzzFeed gave the President-elect a weapon in his arsenal against the press. They did real damage to public trust at a time when it was already fragile.
Because it was circulated at the highest levels of politics and media (including the sitting and incoming presidents) and was impacting their decision-making, the document had genuine news value. To continue to hide it would have been a disservice to the public and exactly the kind of dishonesty the media is accused of regularly.
As BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith put it, "there was an era when you would be the gatekeeper for information, you would say to your audience, "we're keeping things from you... but you should trust us." You could say that was a good era, you could say that was a bad era, but that is not the present day."
This document was demonstrably relevant to the public interest. It was circulating at the highest levels of both government and the media—Sen. John McCain stated that he passed it to the FBI, Harry Reid wrote a letter referring to it, and members of the press had been sitting on it for months.
Then the President and the President-elect (though he disputes this) were briefed on its contents, and CNN reported that information. Smith is right: "When you have an object that is in play, that is having consequences for the way our elected leaders are acting, you have to ask the question "why should I suppress that?"
After the CNN report, it became untenable and dishonest to keep the information from the public. "Once it emerges in the public conversation that there is this secret floating around full of dark allegations that we will not repeat to you... in this era you have to show your readers what that is, in an appropriate context." Even the decision by some other news organizations, like the New York Times, to summarize the information does not make sense. "To say there is a secret document, here is our summary of it, we are going to protect your eyes... is very difficult to explain or maintain."
- CNN's original report on the President and President-elect's briefing
- "Classified documents presented last week to President Obama and President-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump, multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings tell CNN."
- BuzzFeed's original publication of the dossier
- "A dossier making explosive — but unverified — allegations that the Russian government has been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” President-elect Donald Trump for years and gained compromising information about him has been circulating among elected officials, intelligence agents, and journalists for weeks."
- BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith's interview on the subject
- "This was a real story about a real document that was really being passed around between the very top officials of this country. It's okay for you, Chuck Todd, to see this document, okay for me to see, okay for John McCain ... why is it not okay for your audience? Which of your audience members are you comfortable showing it to? When top officials are not just seeing it but making decisions based on it, it is appropriate to tell your audience."
- CNN's statement on their decision, Trump's comments, and BuzzFeed
"CNN's decision to publish carefully sourced reporting about the operations of our government is vastly different than BuzzFeed's decision to publish unsubstantiated memos. The Trump team knows this. They are using BuzzFeed's decision to deflect from CNN's reporting, which has been matched by the other major news organizations. We are fully confident in our reporting. It represents the core of what the First Amendment protects, informing the people of the inner workings of their government; in this case, briefing materials prepared for President Obama and President-elect Trump last week."