Buzzfeed is in peril. Yesterday the site published unverified claims that President-elect Donald Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, met with Russian operatives in Prague in August 2016. Given the current news environment concerning Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee emails, this is explosive news.
BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith, in an attempt to be the good publisher, released on Twitter his letter of rationale to BuzzFeed staff:
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 11, 2017
Note his comments about transparency and erring on the side of publishing. Even though one of their “ferocious” reporters had been “chasing specific claims in this document for weeks,” they still had “serious doubts about the allegations.” Smith had BuzzFeed publish the story anyway. “Publish and let the reader decide” might sound good—to everyone but the slandered entity, that is.
Cohen claims BuzzFeed’s story is completely false. He says he has never been to Prague or Russia and that on the day in question he was at the University of Southern California with his son. A staff writer at The Atlantic, Rosie Gray, called him and asked. If Cohen can verify any of this, then BuzzFeed and Smith have a problem. By 11 p.m. last night, Gray had also called the USC baseball coach and verified that Cohen was in California on August 29.
The transparency point Smith claimed in his letter to his staff is basically the same rationale former Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana used when he added a clarifying note to “A Rape on Campus” instead of issuing a retraction. If you recall, Rolling Stone published a devastating story about a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia. As soon as it went live, simple queries by other journalists unraveled the story. A few weeks later, Dana added a note to the article stating that they had lost confidence in the main source.
The lesson of Eramo v Rolling Stone is to err on the side of not publishing. In the first defamation suit to go to trial over the Rolling Stone rape story, the jury did not find against Rolling Stone for publishing a poorly investigated story, but for leaving the story up when they had lost confidence in their sources (although if the court had not found that the plaintiff wasn’t a public figure, then Rolling Stone would have been tagged for defamation on the original publication, as the author was.)
How distinguishable is Dana’s “we aren’t sure of this story” note from Smith’s “we never verified this story after weeks of trying” note? At least Rolling Stone believed their story when first published. BuzzFeed has admitted up front that there are “serious doubts about the allegations.” Will another quick round of cursory investigations, such as credit card receipts, air travel logs, or USC eyewitnesss to Cohen’s presence in California on the day in question, unravel BuzzFeed’s scoop and expose the site to a defamation suit?
Unfortunately for BuzzFeed, not only did Gray’s few hours on the phone do more to (un)verify the story than BuzzFeed’s ferocious reporting managed in weeks, but late last night 4chan, that swarm of master trollers, claimed the dossier is their handiwork. BuzzFeed got trolled.
Journalism standards used to work against publishing rumors. Source verification was expected. But news media in the modern era has tossed most journalism standards in pursuit of speed. First site up with the hot take gets the clicks. And in the wake of the 2016 election, “journalists” have decided that they need to get better at influencing rather than reporting the news. In fact, this is how Smith closed his little letter: “But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.” As busybodies and gossips, apparently.