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BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti. Credit: WikiCommons

OK, let me start this by saying that I’m a friend of Glenn Simpson, whose company reportedly produced, via a subcontractor, the now famous dossier on Donald Trump that was published by BuzzFeed and that has dominated the news for a week. I have a lot of respect for Glenn, who was a great journalist and whose firm is known to produce excellent research.

Let me also say that I think BuzzFeed has some first rate journalists but I’m not a fan of Ben Smith, the editor who made the decision to publish the dossier and who has offered the most self-serving and misleading explanation for doing so.

This is all by way of saying that, though I’m generally in favor of disclosure of documents behind stories and love to read the sort of salacious tales in the dossier, I think it was wrong for BuzzFeed to publish it and the media company bears responsibility for this debacle, which has made the entire profession look even worse and generated sympathy for, of all people, Donald Trump.

Simpson’s firm is being berated at the moment but there are a lot of companies in Washington who do the same thing — namely produce political and business intelligence for paying clients — and they operate openly and everyone, including journalists, know who they are. In terms of political intelligence, there are firms who work for Democrats and firms that work for Republicans, and some who work for both. The Democrats don’t have a monopoly on these firms as one might imagine from the current hysteria.

These firms produce internal reports for clients and sometimes those reports are intended to get published in the media. I’ve seen lots of the latter reports over the years from a variety of firms and some of them are excellent and some of them are of very poor quality. As a journalist, though, it’s understood that no one responsible takes a report like that and assumes it is all accurate or rushes it into print. And serious research firms acknowledge that their reports should only be seen as a step in the reporting process and that the information they contain should be verified and re-reported and sometimes consists of fairly raw intelligence.

Reporters know they have to do a lot of additional reporting before using their products but the firms can be excellent sources of information and story generators — especially because so few journalism outfits are willing to pay for research anymore — and a lot of journalists, including myself, reach out to these companies for story ideas or research support and then seek to independently verify any information received.

As has been widely reported, the Trump dossier had circulated for many months — at least as far back as August — and even though there was a fever on the part of the media to get anti-Trump stories into print, everyone with the exception of David Corn of Mother Jones declined to write about the “dossier,” and even he only referred to parts of it. The fact that dozens of journalists reviewed these documents and declined to use them, on the grounds that their allegations could not be verified shows that the information contained within them was very shaky.

I read the documents online and it’s clear that they are thinly sourced and there were apparently serious errors in them, for example the bit about Trump’s attorney’s trip to Prague. The Golden Showers story obviously attracted most of the attention — as BuzzFeed well knew when it published — but there’s no way to verify it and it seems very unlikely to be true, as much as people want to believe otherwise. 

Whatever you think of Trump, he won this embarrassing election under the rules of the game. (And yes, Hillary won the popular vote and in a serious democracy she would have been declared the winner, but we are stuck for the time being with the Electoral College.) The Golden Showers story is quite a sensational accusation to make given that he was about 10 days out from inauguration. If Hillary had won the election would Buzzfeed have posted an unproven dossier on her that alleged she had hired prostitutes during an overseas trip to Ukraine? I seriously doubt it, especially given Buzzfeed’s notable pro-Hillary tilt during the campaign.

(After Trump gained the Republican nomination, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti “told employees…that the media giant is dropping the Republican National Committee as an advertiser, now that Donald Trump is the party’s presumptive nominee. In an email to the staff, Peretti explained the decision, likening Trump ads to cigarette ads. “We don’t run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health,” Peretti wrote, “and we won’t accept Trump ads for the exact same reason.” According to Gawker, BuzzFeed’s president donated $10,000 to the DNC two weeks before that decision was made. It would be interesting to know if Buzzfeed received any ad money or other financial assistance from Democratic sources.)

I’ve admitted to my biases above, but I honestly just don’t get the argument for publication. The documents published by BuzzFeed contained assertions that were not labeled as proven by the research firm and which clearly needed verification which neither BuzzFeed nor any other media outlet was able to do. Smith used a variety of excuses to publish the documents, and the story BuzzFeed published to accompany the release said they contained “specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations.” So why release them?

When Chuck Todd accused Smith of publishing “fake news,” he suggested that BuzzFeed was just being a good Internet news organization and not letting the media and political elite keep information from the public. This would be easier to take more seriously if BuzzFeed is not so obviously a part of the media elite and doesn’t fraternize so comfortably with the political elite like most other news outlets. BuzzFeed was chasing clicks and that’s fine, but dressing this up as public service doesn’t cut it and especially given the political calculations involved.

BuzzFeed’s other excuse was that the documents were already being talked about and were referred to in the Intelligence Community’s very dubious report on Trump. But the documents appear to have been given to various agencies by political figures seeking to burn Trump, which BuzzFeed was only too happy to help out with. So it appears that Trump’s political enemies and media enemies were working together to get this information out before the inauguration.

I’d also note here one peculiar, and possibly unethical, thing about the New York Times’ behavior here. The Times, like everyone but BuzzFeed, didn’t publish the report but they wrote quite a bit about it. In an early story it said that they would not identify the research firm behind the leaked memos because of “a confidential source agreement with The New York Times.” Then it revealed the firm’s name in a later story and edited the earlier one to take out the line about their confidential source agreement.

So it looks like the Times violated a confidentiality agreement, which is pretty troubling, especially because it has started a big push to get anonymous tips. “Not to get overly dramatic but Deep Throat wasn’t outed, even though he would have made a really cool feature,” a friend remarked to me.

There are great stories to do about Trump. and there are a lot of serious accusations that need to be looked into, including his ties to Russia. But publishing the dossier makes it harder to get those sorts of stories into print and makes the public even more skeptical about the media.

Note: I’d strongly urge anyone following this story to friend long-time investigative journalist and researcher Craig Pyes on Facebook. He’s written some of the smartest commentary I’ve seen about this and far better than most of what’s run in the regular media. And he also speaks highly of Simpson.

Here is an excerpt:

When I first read the memos, I knew none of the backstory, and looked forward to the salacious content to bring this clown down, particularly any facts showing that the Trump people had prior knowledge of the Russian hacks — a Watergate-sized story, if true, even if the effects of the hacks on the election are being overblown. But with nearly 40 years of investigative experience, mostly on international issues, the wording of the memos quickly caused me to slam on the breaks, because they were worded in such a way as to make confirmation of the charges impossible. The rule involved in making professional judgments on these kinds of things is simple: you look for information that can be proven either true or false, and from that factual template, you then build out one incontrovertible fact at a time. These memoranda had no such facts, with the possible exception of Cohen’s trip to Prague, which the FBI told the WSJ was false.

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