Two days ago, I wrote that Donald Trump has somehow, against the odds, pulled off another victory against the hapless news media in the whole CNN/Buzzfeed flap. At the time, I mildly defended both CNN and Buzzfeed for what they did journalistically, while expressing strong skepticism about the substance of what was in the memo/dossier, which was the original basis for why the subject of Russia potentially having blackmail material on Trump became part of a presidential intelligence briefing.
Since then, we have learned a lot more context about this entire story and, after now being able to more confidently put some more pieces of this puzzle together, I have come to two pretty solid conclusions, both of which go against the conventional wisdom among the chattering class.
The first is that Buzzfeed was not only ethically justified in publishing the 35-page document, but they were virtually morally obligated to do so. The second is that CNN, while their reporting was dead on, did themselves and this story a great political disservice when they effectively got scared and pushed Buzzfeed under the bus, thus creating the impression that some journalistic crime had been committed here (a perception which Trump obviously took full advantage).
Here are some of the developments which helped me reach these determinations.
- Kellyanne Conway’s contentious interview with Anderson Cooper on Wednesday evening was really eye-opening. It gave me the real sense that Conway was flying blind on the facts (a huge indication that something is very amiss within an organization fighting a scandal) and was reduced to just throwing out buzzwords like “fake news.”
- The “4Chan” hoax theory, latched onto by some of Trump’s media sycophants, including Matt Drudge, turned out, just as I predicted, to be, ironically, “fake news.” While I never believed the silly “4Chan” theory, having it out there, like a foul smell in the vicinity of a restaurant, clearly had at least a general subconscious impact in making people like me more hesitant to buy into the contents of the dossier even a little bit.
- We learned the name (Christopher Steele) and the very credible background of the author of the “Buzzfeed” memo, not only killed the “4Chan” theory or the idea that this was some sort of hoax, but made it clear that the information in the dossier, even if not true, has very legitimate reasons to be taken seriously.
- Intelligence Director James Clapper released a letter about a conversation he had with Trump, while it had the tone of condemnation of the story, actually left no doubt that at least CNN’s reporting was correct. Of course, this didn’t stop Trump from lying about what Clapper said, which, in my mind, only heightens the suspicion that there might really be something to all of this (if there isn’t, Trump doesn’t need to be lying about what Clapper said, unless he just can’t physically help himself).
- Vice-President Joe Biden confirmed that he and President Obama had both been briefed on the materials in question, further corroborating CNN and thus giving added weight to the substance of the raw intelligence in the dossier.
- CNN took a network-wide victory lap in the most aggressively anti-Trump/Conway fashion you can imagine, showing that this is clearly not a situation where CNN is concerned that they might have blown it and they simply want to save face and quickly run away. Their extreme confidence in their story tells me that their sources weren’t leaking this to them in a hesitant manner, nor were they hyping something that only sounded plausibly significant, but which was really just total bullcrap. Clearly, somebody really important thought that this story was substantial enough to make sure that it was in the public domain.
So in this new context, let’s now evaluate Buzzfeed’s role, which has been almost universally admonished by the rest of the news media and castigated by the Trump team (which actually benefitted politically from what Buzzfeed did). Based on what we know now, even if the dossier is completely false, I fail to see much wrong in what Buzzfeed did.
Once CNN reported that a document Buzzfeed and many other outlets had was used, directly or indirectly, in a presidential intelligence briefing, in my view that dossier becomes inherently newsworthy, regardless of its veracity. At that point it basically becomes a question of whether the news value of it is outweighed by the potential damage done by promoting possibly false information. To me, there are several reasons why, especially in this unique set of circumstances, it absolutely does.
We obviously aren’t dealing with a “normal” President-elect here. Trump has praised Russian leader Vladimir Putin numerous times, told conflicting stories about having met him, and nominated friends of Putin to be both his Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. He has also refused to release his tax returns. And, oh by the way, Russia is believed to have been actively working against his opponent during the campaign.
Trump also made the centerpiece of his campaign against Hillary Clinton the idea that her private server issues made her a huge risk to national security. But what could possibly be a greater risk to our national security than Russia possibly having blackmail material on a new president?
Trump also lives in the most fragile of glass houses when it comes to being the victim of supposedly “fake news.” When you falsely claim to have information that the first black president wasn’t born in the United States, I think you give up the moral high ground on information in a presidential intelligence briefing leaking out. Heck, does anyone remotely believe that if a similar document backing up “Birtherism” had been unearthed, even under far less credible circumstances, that Trump wouldn’t have released it himself at a live press conference preceded by showgirls and followed by fireworks?!
But the most important reason why this document absolutely needed to be released is one that I haven’t heard anyone even mention. That is, by publishing it you theoretically destroy its value as blackmail because obviously, should Russia really have “Kompromat” on our incoming president, it is rendered virtually powerless if the American public already knows about it.
This is why it can be argued that what Buzzfeed did was not only ethically defensible, but it was both obligatory and in the best interests of the nation.
However, two things outside of their control ended up destroying much of the inherent value in Buzzfeed’s decision (which, to be clear, was certainly motivated far more by the knowledge that someone else might scoop them at any moment than by any high-brow concern for the public good).
The first was that Trump vehemently condemned all the allegations in a blanket denial, which effectively ENHANCED the value of any blackmail material Russia might have because now any release would absolutely be politically lethal to him. If he had simply refused to dignify the allegations with direct comment (LOL), then you could make a strong argument that Russia’s leverage against him, assuming it even exists, would be at least be greatly diminished. I realize this put Trump in a bit of a no win situation, but that is why being president is such a tough job. To be clear, I hope/trust that Trump told the truth, but if he did not, then, and I don’t make this charge lightly, he has effectively committed treason and would now be very exposed to impeachment.
The second was that, in what I perceived as a bit of a panic produced by the extreme blowback they were getting, CNN hung Buzzfeed about as far out to dry as they could in a futile effort to separate themselves from the dossier itself after Trump humiliated them at his press conference. In reality, this was perceived as a sign that the premise of the story was highly vulnerable to criticism and created the feeling of blood in the water.
Once there is ANY sign of trouble with a major story like this one, especially with the new fear of being labeled with “fake news,” the other major outlets are going to quickly diminish or ignore it, and to a large extent that is what happened here. NBC for instance, in what now seems like a petty political move, even went out of their way to attack the CNN story with what were, at best, nitpicky and irrelevant contradictions.
The bottom line of this Buzzfeed controversy is that it really all comes down to two words. I honestly believe that if the highly explosive words “golden shower” were not in the memo that Buzzfeed probably doesn’t get even half of the criticism it did.
They never said that the information was true and they never claimed that it was their reporting. This was document that was deemed important enough to be used at the very highest levels of our government (if a mistake was made here it was by the intelligence agencies more than Buzzfeed). That gave it more than enough significance, especially in the current environment, to be published. The public and the rest of the media should have been mature enough to simply put it all in its proper context.
As for how much of the dossier is actually true, I still think/hope that most of it is false. But I must admit that I am not nearly as confident of that view as I was just two days ago.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is a documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at email@example.com