Spare Me Your Pearl-Clutching About Buzzfeed, Big Media

Shortly after CNN published their article late Tuesday afternoon titled, “Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him,” Buzzfeed published the raw unverified documents that were summarized by intelligence officials in briefings to the President, Trump and Congressional leaders. According to multiple sources, this dossier had been obtained by many news outlets and was the talk of the town among Washington people who are “in the know” on these kinds of things.

There is now a raging debate about whether or not Buzzfeed should have made these documents available to the general public – with most of the big media publications coming down on the side of “no.” Kevin Drum examines both sides of the argument and ultimately comes down on the side of “yes,” Buzzfeed was right to publish the dossier, as does Vanessa Gazari, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review. Within Gazari’s argument is an example of why – regardless of where you stand on the journalistic merits – I have so little patience for the pearl-clutching about this from big media.

Several aspects of the mainstream media’s reaction demand further scrutiny. Some critics seem to be saying that unless the information in an intelligence briefing or other leaked document can be independently verified by reporters, it shouldn’t be published. But did reporters independently verify all the allegations against Hillary Clinton and her allies contained in the emails released by WikiLeaks? An October story in The Hill details the allegation that Donna Brazile passed a debate question to the Clinton campaign, and contains this caveat in the fourth paragraph: “The emails, which have been made public in batches by WikiLeaks, have been largely unconfirmed and are believed to have been stolen by Russian intelligence.”…Why was it acceptable to publish that story based on an email, and not documents whose content intelligence officials considered important enough to share with the president and president-elect?

I can think of another example. In April of last year, the NYT published a story titled, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal” that was largely based on information from the book “Clinton Cash” by Peter Schweitzer – who worked for Steve Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute at the time. I’ve written previously about how Bannon and his pals weaponized stories that were fed to the mainstream media. In this case, the NYT took the bait and ran with it. The contents of that article wound up in a Trump ad during the 2016 campaign with allegations of “pay for play” against Clinton, which were ultimately debunked at FactCheck.org.

Beyond the practice of publishing unverified rumors that suggest pay for play, we here at the Washington Monthly were pretty outspoken during the election about the way outlets like the NYT covered stories on the Clinton Foundation and her emails. Here is the kind of thing we heard pretty regularly back then:

Does the new batch of previously undisclosed State Department emails prove that big-money donors to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation got special favors from Mrs. Clinton while she was secretary of state?

Not so far, but that the question arises yet again points to a need for major changes at the foundation now, before the November election.

Let’s re-write that and see if it fits in the current situation:

Does the new batch of previously undisclosed reports prove that the Trump campaign coordinated their efforts with Vladimir Putin and the Russian government?

Not so far, but that the question arises yet again points to the need for major changes in the incoming administration.

The constant refrain we’re hearing from major media outlets right now about why they didn’t release this dossier is that they haven’t been able to verify the information. What I would like from them is an accounting of the time, effort and money they have invested to do so. As of yet, none of them have proven the information contained in the reports to be false (other than saying that it was a different Michael Cohen who travelled to Prague last summer). What we don’t know is whether the information can’t be verified or if they’ve even tried.

We currently have a lot of information about what Russia did to influence this election and how both Trump and his team have not only praised Putin, but built much of their foreign policy in a way that would benefit him. The possibility that ANY of the information contained in that dossier might be true would make the whole Watergate fiasco (which brought down a president) look like child’s play. Nothing is more important right now than getting to the bottom of this one. So spare me your pearl clutching, major media…it’s time to get to work on this story!

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.