BuzzFeed Ben Explains Why They Posted Dossier: CNN Did It First

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Katie Frates Editor-in-chief of The Daily Walkthrough
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BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith finally explained why the outlet published an opposition memo on President Donald Trump: CNN did it first.

CNN originally posted a heavily hedged report on the Trump-Russia dossier Jan. 10. Later that day, BuzzFeed posted the entirety of the memo with a note at the top of the piece saying, “The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.”

The 35-page dossier is a collection of memos alleging that Trump has ties to Russia. Former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele prepared the dossier, and went into hiding after CNN and BuzzFeed published it.

BuzzFeed faced harsh backlash for journalists and the Trump administration for publishing the dossier.

“The two outlets that are actually going with this and releasing it are continuing to make the same mistakes that they have made in the run up to this election,” Mika Brzezinski said, “which was to let their bias get in the way of actually finding out what facts are and putting them out there. The whole thing has felt wrong from the beginning of this show.”

Smith wrote a piece in The New York Times Monday that gave some reasons for why BuzzFeed went ahead with publishing the dossier.

First, the documents were in wide circulation among top intelligence and elected officials and news organizations. They were being fought over — and acted on — at the highest levels of power. But the rest of the country was getting only the occasional glimpse of those battles, never the source documents themselves.

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw explained away this first excuse in his criticism of BuzzFeed going ahead with publication: “We did take it at one point to a very senior American intel official who said, ‘I have no idea that there’s something like this going on, and it’s not even reportable because we don’t have the verification of the various charges that were there.'” (RELATED: Morning Joe Attacks CNN, Buzzfeed Report On Trump And Russia: ‘There’s No Story Here’)

Smith then pins the blame on CNN, and writes that BuzzFeed posted the full dossier because they trust readers can understand the “messy, sometimes uncertain reality” better than all the journalists who had been trying to verify the dossier. Journalists may not have been able to, as Brokaw put it, “close the book on” the dossier, but Smith expected his readers to.

Second, the dossier’s contents spilled into view last week when CNN broke the news that both President Obama and Mr. Trump had received an intelligence briefing that included a synopsis of the document, whose allegations CNN summarized as “compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.”

We at BuzzFeed News had, of course, considered that someone else would post the dossier, and planned in that case to follow by adding what we knew on it. We hadn’t anticipated what actually happened: a bombshell report that described the document, while the document itself remained secret.

That halfway position ran contrary to how we think of our compact with our audience: You trust us to give you the full story; we trust you to reckon with a messy, sometimes uncertain reality. And with other news organizations already trumpeting the dossier’s central allegation — that the Trump campaign maintained secret ties to the Russian leadership — our decision to publish it in full rapidly advanced the story.

Then-CIA Director John Brennan said the dossier was “not intelligence community information,” and that he had “no interest in trying to give that dossier any additional airtime.”

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-President Barack Obama dismissed the dossier when they were briefed on it. “What does this have to do with anything?” Biden said Obama asked him. “Neither of us asked for any detail,” Biden said.

Smith disagreed with Brennan, Biden and Obama’s assessments in his NYTimes piece, writing that it actually deserves more air time.

The dossier is a real document that has been influencing senior officials, lawmakers, intelligence agencies and, potentially, the new commander in chief. Nobody should fall for this attempt to turn the press on itself by making a reasonable debate about transparency into a media civil war.

Sometimes, it means publishing unverified information in a transparent way that informs our users of its provenance, its impact and why we trust or distrust it.

CNN’s Brian Stelter told Smith that it’s not the media’s job to be WikiLeaks: “I’m trying to figure out if you are a ‘Washington Post’ or WikiLeaks. It seems to me you’re trying to be both, saying, we’re going to dump this document online. We don’t know if it’s real. We don’t know if you know it’s a real document. You don’t know if the truth — you don’t know if the facts on it are true or not.”

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