WASHINGTON – A fierce controversy erupted Wednesday after BuzzFeed News published an unsubstantiated dossier containing lurid details on purported intelligence gathered by Russia about President-elect Donald Trump.
Two media outfits — BuzzFeed and CNN — were singled out by Trump, who publicly attacked both as purveyors of “fake news” in connection with the report.
CNN was first to report that Trump had been briefed on the existence of a dossier, circulating in U.S. political circles, that alleged Russia possessed compromising information about him.
The cable network declined to give details of the unverified allegations, but BuzzFeed took the controversial step of publishing the 35-page dossier in full — complete with salacious references to alleged sex tapes involving Trump and Russian prostitutes.
Several U.S. media organizations published limited descriptions of the report’s contents, while making clear — as did BuzzFeed — that they were unverified and possibly unverifiable.
But many media outlets and analysts joined Trump in denouncing the decision by BuzzFeed.
“I think it was incredibly irresponsible,” said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University.
Kennedy called it “unfortunate” that the actions of one media outfit stood to further erode public trust in media, after a bruising campaign in which news organizations were pilloried by Trump and during which “fake news” became an issue.
One of the largest online news sites, BuzzFeed defended its decision to publish the dossier, reportedly compiled by a former British intelligence operative hired by other U.S. presidential contenders to do political “opposition research” on Trump last year.
BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith said his goal was “to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers,” while noting that “the document was in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media.”
But Kelly McBride, ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a media education center, said in a blog post that “publishing an entirely unvetted document is a significant departure from the way editors of most significant publications would define the role of reporting.”
Media writers at leading news organizations echoed the criticism of BuzzFeed — a website created in 2006 which has recently stepped up its investigative reporting and global presence.
Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple slammed BuzzFeed’s “ridiculous rationale” for publication.
“It is unverified — meaning that it requires further investigation,” Wemple wrote. “BuzzFeed has started that process and pledges to continue pursuing it. So why post the documents now?”
David Graham of The Atlantic said BuzzFeed “sidestepped a basic principle of journalism.”
The release “unfairly forces a public figure — Trump, in this case — to respond to a set of allegations that might or might not be entirely scurrilous,” Graham wrote.
“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.”
Graham added: “Transparent transmission of misinformation is no more helpful or clarifying than no information at all.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Trump called the dossier’s release “disgraceful,” training his fire on intelligence agencies who he suggested may have leaked it — and on the media.
Trump reserved his harshest words for BuzzFeed, a site that uses analytics to understand how news goes viral and drew some 185 million visitors last month.
“As far as BuzzFeed, which is a failing pile of garbage, writing it, I think they’re going to suffer the consequences,” Trump warned.
He also assailed CNN for breaking the initial story, accusing them of “going out of their way to build it up.”
The president-elect then clashed with CNN reporter Jim Acosta, repeatedly denying him a question and eventually telling him: “You are fake news.”
The cable network later pushed back in a statement, saying: “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.”
Not all the reaction was negative.
Richard Tofel, president of the investigative news organization ProPublica, welcomed BuzzFeed’s decision to publish, noting that CNN had earlier reported on the existence of the document without revealing its contents.
“Kudos to @BuzzFeedBen and his team for publishing the dossier. Once CNN story out, citizens should have evidence to consider for themselves,” Tofel tweeted.
Analysts at the blog Lawfare, which follows national security issues, noted that they had also had the document “for a couple of weeks” and chose “not to publish it while the allegations within it remain unproven.”
But the analysts — Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey and Quinta Jurecic of the Brookings Institution — said the dossier was nonetheless an important issue that deserved to be investigated.
“The president and president-elect do not get briefed on material that the intelligence community does not believe to be at least of some credibility,” they wrote.
“While nobody has confirmed any of the allegations, both inside government and in the press, it is clear to us that they are the subject of serious attention.”